Torah for the Times 


Torah Reading: Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
Haftora: Isaiah 60:1 - 22


Shabbat Candle Lighting: 7:04 PM

Shabbat Ends: 8:02 PM 



All Blessings

It is a well-known tradition that the curses we read in this week’s parsha are, in essence, hidden blessings. Many Chassidic commentators have taken these frightening verses and interpreted them in such a way that they actually express very positive messages.

One of the “curse/blessing” verses is:

“G‑d will carry against you a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, as an eagle will swoop, a nation whose language you will not understand, a brazen nation that will not be respectful to the old nor gracious to the young.”

In the literal sense, the phrase “G‑d will carry against you a nation from afar,” means that the Jewish people will be defeated by a hostile empire that will come from afar.

Nachmanides states that the “nation from afar” in this context refers to the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple.

But, if that is the only meaning of the text, what difference does it really make if the Romans destroyed our Temple and exiled us or if the same would have been accomplished by the Philistines or a similarly “close” nation?

An Internal “Nation from Afar”

On a spiritual level, however, this verse is referring to our internal “nation from afar.” Our Sages compare our bodies to a city over which two forces struggle for control. We have an internal Israel; a force the Talmudic Sages called the Yetzer Tov, which seeks to exercise total sovereignty over our lives. And there is the internal Rome, the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, which seeks to do the same.

Now the reference to a distant nation in the spiritual realm is that it is distant from the spiritual state of the Land of Israel; the Land over which “G‑d your G‑d’s eyes watch over constantly, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” The Yetzer Hara’s interests are antithetical to, and therefore distant from, G‑d’s Land.

“From the End of the Earth”

Moreover, this nation is not only distant but also comes “from the end of the earth.” The Hebrew word for “earth” is “eretz, which the Midrash states is etymologically connected to two words “ratzon-will” and “ratz-run.” This refers to someone who not only has the desire to serve G‑d, but also does it with gusto; he or she runs to carry out G‑d’s will.

Thus, the Torah is hereby describing those whose Yetzer hara is so powerful that their will and enthusiasm is at the other end of the spectrum of good and evil. We’re dealing with a person who is so entangled with exile that they have lost every trace of desire to go in the right direction.

“As an Eagle will Swoop”

Moreover, the Torah describes this person’s Yetzer Hara as “as an eagle will swoop.” Rashi understands this to mean that the enemy nation will come upon us suddenly. In spiritual terms this means that one’s Yetzer Hara will not even give us time to consider the threat or combat it. The Yetzer Hara just swoops down and drives us further away from the desire to serve G‑d.

“A Nation whose Language You Will Not Understand, a Brazen Nation”

It doesn’t end there. The Torah continues to describe the negative power of the Yetzer Hara: “a nation whose language you will not understand.”

In the spiritual sense, the Yetzer Hara (“foreign and distant nation”) is so radical that we don’t have the ability to reason with it because it speaks a language our Yetzer Tov does not understand.

To make the Yetzer Hara even more harmful and challenging, the Torah adds that it is “a brazen nation.” Chutzpah is a trait that cannot be countered with reason.

“Will Not be Respectful to the Old nor Gracious to the Young.”

Moreover, this nation “will not be respectful to the old nor gracious to the young.” The “respectful to the old” in the spiritual context means to keep a tradition for no other reason other than it is our tradition. There are some who will maintain a modicum of observance even if they are not truly attracted to it solely out of respect for tradition; it’s what their parents and grandparents did. This Yetzer Hara has no respect for the old.

There are others who may not be observant but they want their young to remain within the Jewish fold, so they are deferential to Judaism to keep it alive for their children and grandchildren.

This Yetzer Hara has no concern for the preservation of Judaism either.

So, Where’s the Blessing?

Having described the curse of the extreme distant and incorrigible Yetzer Hara, where is the blessing? Where is the positive message?

The answer lies in one word:

In the very beginning of the verse, the Torah describes how “G‑d will carry against you a nation from afar.” The Hebrew word for “carry” is yisa, which can also mean “[he will] uplift.” The ultimate blessing here is that precisely when we have this powerful Yetzer Hara arrayed against us it can lead us to the greatest heights. When our distant internal nation challenges us, and we meet the challenge, our successful struggle has the capacity to uplift us.

We did not choose to have a Yetzer Hara. It was given to us by G‑d: “G‑d will carry against you a nation from afar.” And it was givien for us to resist it and ultimately change it. 

Higher and Higher

When we resist its enticements, when we wage war with it, we are uplifted.

Even if we have yielded to its pressure, which brought us down, we rise again with Teshuvah-repentance or return. Teshuvah uplifts us to a place higher than the place we were at before we sinned. Teshuvah even elevates us to levels that we could never reach just by doing good. 

So, now the verse can be retranslated as “G‑d will cause you to be uplifted by meeting the challenges given to us from an internal force that is distant.”

Not only does Teshuvah raise us to a higher level than the one we were at before we sinned, it raises us even to a much higher level than the tzadik, the person who never had to contend with his or her internal “distant” nation.

This echoes the words of our Talmudic Sages: “In the place where a Ba’al Teshuvah stands, a righteous person has no capacity to stand there.”


Now let us retranslate and reinterpret the entire verse as a sublime blessing intended for those who meet the challenge posed by our Yetzer Hara:

G‑d will uplift you when you meet the challenge from your Yetzer Hara. You will be so elevated that you will be distant from, and higher than, the tzadik, as if you are at opposite ends of the earth, (read: desire). Whereas the tzadik has a constant incremental desire to get closer to G‑d, the Ba’al Teshuvah’s desire is infinitely more passionate and extreme.

The Role of Elijah

As a result of Teshuvah G‑d will send Elijah the prophet who is compared to an eagle in the Midrash. Elijah will swoop down like an eagle to announce the coming of Moshiach, one who will teach us a new language by revealing new vistas of Torah that we never understood in the past.

Another role ascribed to Elijah is that he will introduce a kosher and holy form of chutzpah.

The Biblical book of Malachi concludes by saying that Elijah will “restore the hearts of the fathers through their children.” This means that the young will overtake the old in their devotion. In the end, the dichotomy (“generation gap”) between the old and the young will disappear.

We are now in the season of Teshuvah. May we see the fulfillment of the blessing that we will hear Elijah announce that Moshiach is here and will take us out of exile immediately. In the words of Maimonides: “Israel will do Teshuvah and they will be redeemed immediately!”