Parashat Ki Tavo

A Covenant of Action

Judaism emphasizes deed, not creed.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Within the narrative of blessings and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, God sets out expectations for how we should behave, making it clear that this is not a covenant of faith, but one of deeds. Contemporary Jewish philosopher David Hartman contends that the blessings and curses are not literally inflicted upon humans in response to their observance or nonobservance of commandments. Hartman argues, instead, that our Torah enumerates these curses and blessings in order to emphasize the grave importance of acting with holiness and thereby actualizing God's presence in our midst. The blessings and curses are provided as a symbolic reminder of our covenantal obligations, reinforcing our commitment to a covenant rooted in action.

american jewish world serviceRabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also invokes our covenant with God when he asserts that the blessings and curses are meant to impart a sense of our partnership with the divine as we struggle to cope with good and evil. Simply observing the Torah's written laws is not enough to continually bring sanctity into our lives. The Torah not only narrowly stipulates that certain acts are prohibited, but also broadly demands that we accept our responsibility to realize a sustainable and just society. 

Heschel understands the significance of our deeds both as signs of our covenantal relationship and as active agents of change in our surroundings. In God in Search of Man, he writes:

"It is in the deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of their ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others…The deed is the test, the trial, and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense."

A Recipe for Sustainable Development

Understood this way, mitzvot ben adam l'chavero--those commandments that guide human relationships--really actualize our covenant with God. The majority of the mitzvot detailed in this parashah focus on supporting just and compassionate relationships with other human beings--in effect, offering guidelines for the creation of just communities.

Prohibitions against subverting the rights of the stranger, secretly harming a neighbor, and accepting bribes support the universal human rights we seek to uphold in our social justice work. The Torah champions human integrity and dignity, and our literary tradition further elevates this with the assertion that the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone become self-sufficient.

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Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall was ordained as a Reform rabbi from Hebrew Union College in New York City and is thrilled to be joining NC Hillel. Originally from Chicago, Rabbi Marshall graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Psychology.