Parashat Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

September 17, 2011 / 18 Elul 5771

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Shira D. Epstein, assistant professor of Jewish Education, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, JTS.

As a first-time parent of a soon-to-be toddler, I read with fresh eyes the discipline approaches I regularly present in early childhood education courses. Novice teachers and parents alike learn that, while the allure of a grand reward or the threat of a horrible punishment may cause a child to stand at attention and guarantee compliant behavior, the strategy holds diminishing returns. With this knowledge, I make silent promises that I will encourage a healthy expression of needs and desires, and impose age-appropriate limits when necessary. Through exposure to routine and continuously reinforced expectations, children eventually understand why they should value their shared spaces of households or learning communities. We do not treat each other with respect in order to secure an expensive gift or to avoid being grounded, but because we care about one another. And yet, as anyone who has spent extensive time with young children can attest, the well-worn tactics of bargaining, enticing, and threatening can help us when tempers are short and patience is waning.

This week's parashah presents parenting/caregiving models that reflect two very different ends of the discipline spectrum. In the early passages of Ki Tavo, Moshe's actions are those of a disciplinarian whose primary aim is to foster the Israelites' personal investment in upholding the commandments. Moshe outlines what would today be viewed as a series of experiential, hands-on activities. First, the Israelites are told that when they eventually leave the desert and settle into the Promised Land, they will take some of every first fruit that they have harvested, put it in a basket, and acknowledge before the priest that they have entered the Promised Land (Deut. 26:1–3). According to Rashi, this activity presumes that the Israelites have planted and cultivated the fruit themselves: the farmer claims his role in growing the fruit when it is still hanging from the tree by tying a blade of grass around a blossoming fig and declaring, "This is the first fruit." Through this reading, the activity of bringing the fruit to the priest is the culmination of a long process that supports the Israelites in viewing themselves as connected to the land, their community, and in turn, the commandments.

Moshe's next instruction to the Israelites further advances their tie to the land. They are told that immediately following the transfer of the fruit to the priest, they will recite aloud a series of passages that have become the core of the Passover Haggadah: "'My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there . . . The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us . . . The Lord freed us from Egypt . . . God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil'" (Deut. 26:5–9). Moshe additionally charges them with erecting large stones, plastering them with lime, and inscribing on them all of the words of the Torah (Deut. 27:2–3). In educational parlance, Moshe was ensuring that his learners were engaged in multiple modalities: they were kinesthetically, verbally, and linguistically fortifying their relationship to their common heritage and their bond as an emerging people. 

Modern education philosophers such as Maxine Greene advocate the practice of "constructivist" education (in which, as the name connotes, participants actively construct their own meanings) as the cornerstone to nurturing a community filled with wonder, imagination, and transformative learning. Greene maintains that this occurs as members of a society view a common purpose to their participation. In this vein, each of the activities Moshe describes is what educators might view as a "scaffold" to help the people ultimately feel invested in both venerating their lineage and their land, and thus, preserving the laws that guide their everyday communal practices. Generations to follow will want to uphold the commandments because they will offer an elevated purpose to their lives. 

In stark contrast, in the latter segment of the parashah, the Israelites are treated as recalcitrant children who require a rigid dose of discipline. As leader to consummate boundary testers, Moshe perhaps recognizes that internal incentive might not be enough to have them follow the commandments, and therefore, he must adopt an authoritarian tone. Moshe first outlines causes for possible punishment (Deut. 27:15–26), including both transgressions against God, such as making sculptured images, and transgressions against our fellow humans, such as insulting our parents. He describes in detail the rewards and blessings the Israelites will receive if they are obedient, such as enough rain to ensure an abundance of crops and victory in war (Deut. 28:1–13). Immediately following, Moshe lists what is known as the Tochecha, a detailed and thorough enumeration of all curses to be inflicted upon the Israelites, should they not obey the commandments laid out in the Torah (Deut. 28:15–68). All elements of living that mattered to them would be adversely affected: childbearing, agriculture, and livestock. The people would suffer from debilitating diseases. The Tochecha serves as the prototypical form of parental threat, the biblical analogue to "By the time I count to three, you had better stop that bad behavior . . . or else . . . "

It can feel challenging to reconcile these two starkly different educational approaches. Like Moshe, we too constantly seek avenues for meaning in Jewish practice. This connection was often faltering and tentative for the Israelites, who perceived ties to the land on an everyday basis, and were that much closer in ancestry to our "grand narrative" of the exodus from Egypt. While the Tochecha might not resonate or sit well with us, it can serve the purpose of reminding us that this personal link often emerges only after multiple and varied interactions with community. Just as Moshe envisioned for the Israelites, we can draw upon the experiential elements of ritual and celebration to help us construct our own meanings within our tradition.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.