Ki Tavo


Rabbi Bernie Fox




Deviation in Observance to the Right or Left

Do not deviate from the things that I have commanded you today to the right or left – in order to follow other gods.  (Devarim 28:14)


Moshe admonishes Bnai Yisrael to be faithful to the Torah.  The people should not deviate from the commandments of Hashem.  They should not worship other gods.


This pasuk contains a subtle difficulty.  Moshe begins by warning Bnai Yisrael against deviating from the commandments. He tells the people they should not stray from the path of the Torah to the right or left. This expression seems to refer to even minor deviations.  In other words, the Torah is to be strictly and closely observed and even a slight divergence from the Torah path – to the right or left – is to be avoided.  Moshe then admonishes the nation against worshiping other gods.  In the context of the passage, this admonishment seems to be intended as an example of a deviation – slightly to the right or left – from the path of the Torah.  If this was Moshe’s intention – to provide an example of slight deviation, then this is not a valid example!  Moshe began by stating that the people must guard themselves against minor deviations.  Idolatry is not a minor divergence from the path of Torah.  Idolatry represents a complete rejection of the fundamentals of the Torah! 


Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers an amazing interpretation of the passage that resolves the question.  He begins by interpreting the opening statement in the pasuk.  In order to understand his interpretation a brief introduction is required.  The Torah is a law revealed by Hashem.  It is not a set of traditions.  We do not observe the Torah because it was our ancestors’ way of life.  We are not faithful to the Torah because it is our cultural identity.  We must observe the Torah because it is Hashem’s revealed truth.  This distinction has practical implications.  A cultural tradition or identity naturally evolves over time.  In fact, this evolution is healthy and indicative of vibrancy and relevance.  For example, as Americans we are proud of our tradition of democracy.  However, if our concept of democracy had not evolved and developed since the establishment of the United States, women would not have achieved suffrage and slaves would not have been emancipated.  We have extended and developed the concept of democracy beyond the vision of many of our country’s founding fathers.  This is not a rejection of our traditions; this is a healthy adaptation and development of our traditions. 


In contrast, a divinely revealed truth does not require updating.  The passage of time requires that the revealed law be analyzed and properly applied to emerging circumstances and challenges.  However, Hashem’s law does not change and does not require revision.


Nonetheless, we find that over time variations of observance develop within the Jewish community.  With the passage of time, these inaccuracies or errors become established elements of a community’s pattern of observance.  In such instances a clear divergence develops between conventional practice and the actual requirements of halachah.  According to Sforno, the opening portion of the passage refers to these divergences from the path of the Torah—from halachah.  Conventional observance must be consistent with the law and an element of observance that is inconsistent with halachah is a divergence from this path to the right or left.


Now, Sforno reconciles the closing portion of the passage with the opening portion.  Moshe admonishes the people not to follow other gods.  These “other gods” are not idols or heathen deities.  These “other gods” are ancestors or respected leaders who inadvertently established erroneous customs or observances. We do not follow these traditions out of respect to these leaders.  Instead, we must remain faithful to the Torah.  Our first loyalty is not to our respected ancestors but to the Torah.[1]


This explanation resolves the difficulty in the pasuk.  The entire passage deals with minor deviations from the path of halachah.  Moshe begins by admonishing the people against these divergences.  He then explains that these deviations can be caused by an irresponsible adoption of observances that have become prevalent and conventional.  This attitude is motivated by an inappropriately uncritical relationship toward our ancestors.  We must guard ourselves against this attitude and concentrate on fulfilling the will of Hashem.





Foreign Participation in the Rebuilding of Yerushalayim

And foreigners will build your walls, and their kings will minister to you.  For although in My anger I struck you, in My favor I have had mercy upon you.  (Yishayahu 60:10, Haftorah for Parshat Ki Tavo)

In the haftorah for our parasha, the Navi discusses the redemption of Bnai Yisrael.  He reveals that nations that may have previously persecuted Bnai Yisrael will acknowledge this redemption.  The walls of Yerushalayim will be rebuilt.  These nations will participate in this project.


This pasuk seems inconsistent with Torah law. Maimonides explains that it is prohibited to accept donations from non-Jews for the building of Yerushalayim’s walls.  Yerushalayim must be completely identified with Bnai Yisrael.  Accepting contributions from other nations for the building and maintenance of the city’s walls compromises this identity.[2]  If these contributions are not accepted, it follows that direct participation is also prohibited. Yet, our passage states that foreign nations will directly participate in the rebuilding of Yerushalayim’s walls!  How can we reconcile this passage with halachah?


It is notable that Maimonides seems to contradict himself on the issue of non-Jewish participation in the building of Yerushalayim.  As we have shown above, Maimonides maintains that non-Jewish participation is prohibited.  However, in another instance, Maimonides takes the opposite position.  Maimonides, explains that every war must be preceded by an offer of peace.  This even applies to the war waged to conquer the Land of Israel.  Prior to waging war with the nations that occupied the Land of Israel, we were required to offer a peaceful settlement.  The Torah specifies some of the elements of this settlement.  One of the elements is that the nations must accept political suzerainty of Bnai Yisrael.  The nation must pay tribute.  This tribute includes monetary payment and providing labor for national projects.  Maimonides explains that among these projects is maintenance of the walls.[3]  He is apparently referring to the walls of Yerushalayim!  How can we reconcile this law with the prohibitions against non-Jewish participation in the building of Yerushalayim’s walls?


Rav Meshulam David Soloveitchik offers a solution to our problem.  He observes that the prohibition against non-Jewish participation in the building of the walls of Yerushalayim has a purpose.  The city must be completely identified with Bnai Yisrael.  Non-Jewish participation compromises this identity.  Through participating in the building of the walls other nations would become participants in the city’s building or maintenance.  Their identity would become related to the city.  Rav Soloveitchik explains that this consideration does not restrict every form of non-Jewish participation in the city’s building and maintenance.  Specifically, it allows for participation rendered as tribute to Bnai Yisrael.  In such a circumstance, the nation does not contribute as an independent nation.  The nation participates as an act of recognition of Bnai Yisrael’s suzerainty.  No foreign identity becomes attached to the city.  The city retains its exclusive association with Bnai Yisrael.[4]


Based upon this distinction, our problem is solved.  Maimonides does not contradict himself.  He explains that as a general rule foreign participation in the building and maintenance of Yerushalayim’s walls is prohibited.  However, he explains that participation offered as tribute does not violate this prohibition.  This is because participation is only prohibited when it compromises the city’s identity.  Participation provided as tribute does not compromise this identity.  The Navi’s prophecy is also consistent with the law.  Apparently, the Navi is prophesizing that former enemies will be vanquished.  As vanquished nations, these foreign peoples will offer tribute to Bnai Yisrael.  Part of this tribute will be their participation in the rebuilding of the city they had destroyed.  This tribute does not compromise the identity of the city.



[1]   Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 28:14.

[2]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyin 8:8.

[3]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:31.

[4]   Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5755), volume 3, pp. 318 - 319.