Parashat: Ki Tavo
Parashat Ki Tavo
Aug 27, 2021, 20 Elul 5781
Torah: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8; Triennial 26:12-28:6
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Why Does the Blind Man Carry a Torch?
Parashat Ki Tavo contains a reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel, including a list of blessing and curses that will befall the Israelites depending on whether or not they fulfill God’s commandments. While the list of blessings is relatively short and straightforward, the curses are described in graphic and horrifying detail spanning more than fifty biblical verses, culminating in God’s threat to return the people to Egypt: “The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I said you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy” (28:68). God took the Israelites out of Egypt so that they might receive and fulfill the Torah; if they fail to do so, they will be sent back to Egypt and endure a fate even worse than the original experience of Egyptian bondage. This time, rather than longing to be free, they will despair that they are not even wanted for their servitude.
As the curses in our parashah serve to remind us, if we fail to fulfill God’s commandments, then we are effectively undoing the whole purpose of the Exodus. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that several of the curses are strikingly reminiscent of the ten plagues with which God struck Egypt before the Exodus: The people will be afflicted by “Egyptian boils,” pestilence will cling to them, and their crops will be ravaged by locusts. One of the most vividly described curses seems to be an echo of the plague of darkness: “The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and dismay. You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark” (28:28-29). This plague captures the attention of a Talmudic sage named Rabbi Yose, who is intrigued by a seemingly extraneous detail in the Torah’s description. As Rabbi Yose asks, why must the Torah specify that the blind man is surrounded by darkness? If he is blind, won’t he have to grope around regardless? What difference does it make to a blind man whether there is light or not, since the blind man cannot see it anyway? Is the darkness in this verse merely an attempt to further hone the connection to the Egyptian plagues, or is something else at play here?
Rabbi Yose’s question about this curse comes up in the context of the rabbinic discussion of communal prayer in the third chapter of tractate Megillah (24b). The rabbis ask whether a blind person may lead the congregation in the Shema, which is preceded by a blessing about the creation of the sun, moon, and other luminaries. Rabbi Yehuda, the lone dissenter, argues that since a blind person has never benefited from the light of these celestial bodies, he may not recite this blessing. The other rabbis challenge Rabbi Yehuda. They ask: Who says you’re not allowed to speak about something just because you haven’t experienced it first hand? People often expound on matters with which they have no direct experience. As they tell Rabbi Yehuda, “Many have seen fit to expound upon the divine chariot, even though they have never actually seen it.” Only the prophet Ezekiel saw the mystical vision of the divine chariot, and yet countless sages have expounded upon it. Why then can’t the blind person expound upon the luminaries and lead the congregation in Shema?
It is at this point that Rabbi Yose chimes in. He questions whether it is really true that a blind person derives no benefit from light, and he answers his question by means of a story. Once he was walking around in the darkness of night when he saw a blind man passing by with a torch. Rabbi Yose asked the blind man why he was carrying a torch given that he is blind and cannot see its light. The blind man responded, “As long as I have a torch in my hand, people see me and save me from the pits and thorns and thistles.” In the narrative framing this story, Rabbi Yose explains that throughout his entire life, he was troubled by the verse from our parashah about the blind man groping around in darkness, but after this encounter with the blind man, he realized that even a blind person can benefit from light because it enables others around him to come to his aid. He thus came to understand that the curse in our parashah is so severe because the blind man does not even have the benefit of a torch to alert others; instead, he gropes around in darkness, and no one can see him and help him.
The story of Rabbi Yose’s encounter with the blind man is a reminder to all of us to allow others to help us in our own journeys through darkness. We all go through periods in life when we feel like we are groping around, unsure how to move forwards and terrified of all the stumbling blocks in our path. In such moments, we should not be afraid to shine light on our own distress and allow others to alleviate our suffering. Indeed, as Rabbi Yose learned, it was not just the case that he was in the position to help the blind man; the blind man was also able to help Rabbi Yose by illuminating a puzzling text. The blind man’s torch thus cast light not just on the pits and brambles, but also on a thorny verse from our parashah that had previously tripped up and blinded Rabbi Yose.
Our parashah contains many curses that will befall us if we fail to fulfill God’s commandments. Many of these commandments are about helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves, since we—former Egyptian slaves—know what it means to be among the less fortunate. But if we wish to avoid returning to that terrible place of Egyptian bondage, we need not just help others; we also need to learn how to allow others to help us, holding our torches high as we stumble through the darkness.
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