Chapter 26

1-2 When you enter the land: The word for “land” in Hebrew (eretz) is related etymologically to the word for “will” (ratzon).1 Based on this, the Ba’al Shem Tov expounded this verse as follows:

When you enter the land: When you succeed in aligning your will with God’s will—

That God is giving you for an inheritance: this ability being a Divine gift innate to your Divine soul—

You must take possession of it: your challenge is to integrate this newfound will into your daily life, so that rather than divorcing you from reality, it enables you to work within reality in order to rectify it.

Take…the…fruit…and put it into a basket: In order to properly rectify reality, ensure that your heightened consciousness (the “fruit”) is vested in the appropriate means of expression (a “basket”).

Go to the place that God, your God, will choose: In the context of working to rectify reality, be aware that when you travel from place to place, you are not doing so on your own; rather, Divine providence is arranging your movements in order that you disseminate Divine consciousness wherever Divine providence leads you.

Later, the Ba’al Shem Tov expanded on this idea, uncovering an additional layer of meaning in this verse:

When you enter the land: In order to align your will with God’s will—

Go to the place on which God, your God, will choose to rest His Name: Devote yourself selflessly to disseminating Divine awareness wherever you are. And how is this done? By even the simplest of means, such as reciting a blessing over food or reciting a verse from Psalms.2

In other words, we should not allow our intellects to convince us that we are incapable of influencing our environment. The fact that we are where we are indicates that God has both placed us there and has given us the spiritual wherewithal to disseminate Divine awareness.

Furthermore, fulfilling our Divine mission in consort with God’s providential cues will bring us material blessings as well: Divine providence works in the guise of natural cause-and-effect to bring us where we are (we thought we went there for the sake of some material need), so fulfilling the spiritual purpose of our being there will bring God’s beneficence into the natural process that worked to bring us there.3

Moreover, if we integrate our Divine inspiration into our daily lives, remaining constantly aware that our footsteps are guided by God, then we will ipso factodisseminate Divine awareness wherever we go.4


[2] put these fruits into a basket: In the terminology of Kabbalah: the fact that we are commanded to bring the choicest fruits from the choicest places in the Holy Land alludes to God’s wish that we express the highest, choicest “lights” in “vessels.” But inasmuch as the highest lights are infinite, they therefore cannot being contained (i.e., expressed) in vessels, which are by definition finite. How, then, can we do this? Only by evoking the power of God’s essence, which transcends the dichotomy of finite and infinite, and for whom everything is possible.

This is alluded to by the phrase, “put it in a basket…the place that God, your God, will choose.” True free choice is possible only for God’s essence, for only God Himself can truly do anything.5

1-2 When you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you: Allegorically, the notion of “coming into the land” alludes to the descent of the soul into the body. This descent is quite drastic in that the soul forsakes its spiritual abode only to find itself challenged by a physicality so overwhelming that it totally obscures Divinity. Yet, this descent is still, ultimately, a joyous event, a veritable gift “that God, your God, is giving you,” because the soul before its descent into the body can only experiencing the grade of Divine consciousness endemic to its “location” on the rung of spirituality. But in the course of fulfilling its mission in the physical world, it acquires the ability to experience much higher levels of Divine consciousness. Thus, its descent into this world results in an ascent after it leaves the world to a level higher of Divine revelation than it had ever known.6

2 Until you, as a nation, conquer the land completely: There were certainly individual Israelites who received their portion of the land and settled it before the entire land was conquered, divided up, and settled, for, as can be seen in the Book of Joshua, this process took a full 14 years. Nonetheless, until the conquest and settlement was complete, no one became obligated to bring their first fruits annually to the Temple.

The reason for this is because the ritual of the first fruits expresses our thankfulness for God’s complete goodness, and as long as there remains even one Jew who has not yet received his portion in the land, the rest of us should not be able to experience complete joy and thanksgiving.7

5 An Aramean was the destroyer of my forefather: The two historical events we mention when we bring the first fruits are how Laban tried to kill Jacob8 and how the Egyptians mistreated us. There are, of course, many other good things that God did both for us and for the patriarchs; why are these two singled out for special mention?

The answer is that in bringing the first fruits, we thank God both for giving us the Land of Israel and for settling us in it permanently—for providing us with a home. This is underscored by the fact that we were not obligated to perform this commandment until we had not only entered the land but also conquered it and settled it.9 In thanking God, we therefore mention the two prior times in our history when we had a semblance of permanence somewhere and God protected us. Jacob lived with Laban for 20 years, and the Jewish people lived in Egypt for 210 years.

This explains as well why this liturgy of thanks includes mention of God’s past protection altogether. The quasi-permanent situations we lived in before entering our own land were amongst hostile hosts. We therefore thank God for providing us with a land of our own, where we can live life and devote ourselves to fulfilling our Divine mission under our own self-rule.10


[5] Intentions and Merits: The Talmud11 derives from Scripture that God credits even unfulfilled good intentions to one’s merit, but does not count unfulfilled evil intentions to one’s demerit. It then qualifies this principle—again, based on Scripture—as applying only to Jews, and states that the reverse applies to gentiles. The classic ethicist Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz, poses the obvious question:12 Is God then partial? This would be inconsistent with His attribute of pure justice. He answers: Yes, God is biased, but justifiably so. Inasmuch as Jews possess a Divine soul that impels them incessantly to do good, it may be presumed that they will eventually fulfill their good intentions unless prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond their control. Similarly, their Divine soul also constantly encourages them to reconsider any evil intentions they may have been harboring, so it may likewise be presumed that they probably will not implement any such evil intentions.

In contrast, as we have seen,13 non-Jews are not created by God with this Divine soul, but solely with the basic, human soul that compels all human beings to seek survival and comfort—ambitions that are inherently neutral but which can easily degenerate into destructive pursuits unless the non-Jew consciously decides to accept the Noahide code and become a force for good in the world. Therefore, at least until the majority of non-Jews accept the Noahide code, it cannot be assumed as a matter of course that they will eventually fulfill their good intentions or reconsider their evil ones.

10 You will then give the fruits to the priest: The first fruits are not to be sacrificed on the altar but given to a priest to eat. Although portions of the sacrifices are also eaten or used by the priests, the first fruits are unique in that no part of them whatsoever is consumed by the altar. Even though the priest places them in front of the altar for a short time and they are considered to have been given to God, they are enjoyed entirely by people.

The reason for this is that while all other sacrifices express how we strive to become closer to God is some way (this being the meaning of the Hebrew word for “sacrifice,” korban), the first fruits express the attitude we are intended to have toward our involvement in the physical world. We are not to destroy physicality but to elevate it, so that its inherent holiness is revealed even while it retains its physical state.

This notion extends as well to the fruits that are not given to the priest. The Torah tells us to take “some of”our first fruits. This indicates that there are “first fruits” that are not given to the priestbut remain at home. They, too, must be elevated to holiness such that it is evident to all that this produce was fit to be given to God.14


[11] A descendant of Jacob: Even if a convert happens to be a blood-descendant of Jacob, the fact that he was not Jewish in the interim means that for all legal intents (inheritance, marital ties, etc.) he is considered not to be of Jewish ancestry.15

18 He has set you apart: According to Rashi, the expression “set apart” (להאמיר) connotes separation and distinction on the one hand, and glory—in the sense of one’s glory being his prize possession, so to speak—on the other. The proof text he cites for the latter meaning is: “All transgressors glorify themselves (יתאמרו).”16

As an idiom of “separation and distinction,” this expression refers to our essential Divine nature and true inner reality, by virtue of which we are completely divorced from any notion of evil and are therefore “separate and distinct” from wrongdoing.

As an expression of “glory,” this expression refers to that fact that even when we do sin and are involved in actions that distance us from God, we have the ability to return to Him. We are taught that teshuvah motivated by ardent love of God transforms even deliberate wrongdoings into merits,17 which means that we are blessed not only with the ability to forsake negative behavior and habits at any instant (thereby defying the natural forces of inertia and habituation); we can even convert our past negative actions into motivations for positive behavior. Thus, what was formerly negative is now something glorious and meritorious. This process increases God’s glory in the world, inasmuch as it demonstrates how He can be revealed not only in elements of reality that are a priori holy (or neutral but receptive to holiness) but also in elements of reality that are a priori antithetical to holiness.

In this context, the deeper meaning of the verse that Rashi quotes is that through the act of teshuvah, the transgressor can increase the glory of God in the world.18

Chapter 28

2 All the following blessings will pursue you and overtake you: On Rosh HaShanah, our livelihood and health are decreed for the coming year. And yet, we pray every day for health, sustenance, and many other Divine blessings. Is this daily prayer not superfluous, in that all has already been decreed on Rosh HaShanah?

The apparent redundancy of the second half of this verse provides the answer to this question. On Rosh HaShanah,all the different blessings necessary for their respective purposes descend to a certain level of reality where they wait in store to be drawn down further into the physical world. In order to bring them down into the physical world, further prayer and devotion to God is necessary; this is the purpose of our daily prayers.

This is why the Torah speaks first of blessings “pursuing us” and then “overtaking us.”19

Will pursue you and overtake you: This implies that even if we are foolish enough to flee from God’s blessings, they will overtake us, and we will receive them even against our will!20

7 They will flee from you: They will not be killed; they will simply be prevented from harming us. From this we see that when the Jewish people follow the Torah’s instructions as to how to live life, it not only elicits Divine blessing for them but for the whole world—even their enemies, who are allowed to live peacefully and securely in their land (albeit inhibited from harming us in any way).21

9 And walk in His ways: Following the path of Torah enables the soul to “walk.” Before the soul descends into the body, it experiences Godliness in a relatively static fashion. Although it can experience some notion of elevation and movement, any new level reached can always be understood in the context of its previous level of spiritual understanding. This is a limited, step-by-step progress. In contrast, once the soul has entered the body and is able to study the Torah and perform the commandments, it is able to move towards God with quantum leaps. This ability enables the individual to “walk,” to truly progress in his relationship with God.22


[14] The Levites must speak up, saying to every individual of Israel: There are eleven specific curses here. Rashi explains this number as corresponding to all 12 tribes except Simeon, whom Moses did not want to curse explicitly because he was planning not to bless him explicitly when he blessed all the tribes, either.23

We may associate the 11 curses with the 11 tribes as follows:24

  1. Who makes any graven or molten image: This refers to the tribe of Dan, since Abraham foresaw that they would set up a public idol in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem.25
  2. Who degrades his father and mother: This refers to the tribe of Asher, whose territory will be blessed with material abundance,26 which in turn can lead a child to rebel against his parents.27
  3. Who pushes back his neighbor’s landmark: This refers to Issachar, who is likened to a donkey who rests between towns,28 where the possibility exists for falsifying borders.
  4. Who figuratively misguides a “blind person” on the way: This refers to Benjamin, whose descendants succumbed to the misguided counsel of those who advised returning to Egypt after Aaron’s death, and who thereby suffered great losses in the ensuing battle.29
  5. Who perverts the judgment: This refers to Judah, whose descendants will be scholars and judges, and therefore must be careful not to pervert justice.30
  6. Who fornicates with his father’s wife: This refers to Reuben, who was implicated in meddling in his father’s marital affairs.31
  7. Who engages in carnal relations with any animal: This refers to the tribe of Gad, who possessed an abundance of cattle, and therefore was particularly exposed to this possibility.32
  8. Who fornicates with his sister: This refers to Naphtali, since the very name of the progenitor of this tribe alludes to close ties between siblings,33 which although commendable, also expose them to this possibility.
  9. Who fornicates with his mother-in-law: This refers to Joseph, who was tested by the seduction of Potiphar’s wife,34 who later became his mother-in-law when he married her daughter Asnat.35
  10. Who strikes his fellow in secret: This refers to Levi, who attacked the city of Shechem together with his brother Simeon.36
  11. Who takes a bribe: This refers to the tribe of Zebulun, who were destined to be merchants,37 and therefore particularly exposed to this possibility.38

15-68 All the following curses will pursue you: As we explained with regard to the curses in parashat Bechukotai,39 all these curses are in fact blessings in disguise.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi would himself serve as the reader of the Torah in the public worship services. It happened once that he was not in Liozna, where he lived, on the Sabbath of parashatTavo, and someone else took his place as reader. When his young son, DovBer, heard the curses in this parashah, the distress he felt caused him such pain in his heart that on Yom Kippur, a few weeks later, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was still not sure if the boy would be able to fast.

When the young DovBer was asked, “You hear this parashah read every year. Why did you become distressed only this time?” he replied, “When my father reads, it doesn’t sound like curses.”40

47-48 When you had an abundance of everything: Because we did not serve God in joy when we had “an abundance of everything,” He sent us into exile, forcing us to serve our enemies in poverty.

The implication here is that we had indeed been serving God, but not with joy, and for this reason we were sent into exile.41 But if this is so, why such dire punishment for merely lacking joy?

The answer is that even someone committed to serving God cannot escape committing at least minor sins, as it is written, “there is no one on earth so righteous that he [always] does good and never sins.”42 But if we serve God with joy, indicating that we are happy about being God’s servants, God is gratified and the Divine attribute of justice is neutralized. Even though we deserve punishment, our joy in God’s service inspires God, so to speak, to overlook this.43

68 God will bring you back to Egypt: The inner meaning of this curse, according to which it is a blessing, is as follows:

God will bring you back: God will inspire you to repent.

There, you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies: “There” refers to the realm outside the realm of holiness. “Your enemies” refers to the elements of creation forbidden to us by the Torah. Someone who has indulged in forbidden acts and then repents thereby elevates the life-force inherent in these forbidden elements of creation. In contrast, someone who never sins can at most elevate the neutral aspects of creation, by using them for holy purposes.

As slaves and bondwomen: Repentance makes us into God’s servants. People who have never sinned relate to God as children do to their parents: they naturally desire to please Him. Those who have sinned, in contrast, have temporarily obscured this natural desire to please, and must consciously submit themselves (“offer themselves for sale”) to God’s will.

But there will be no buyer: This phrase may be read: “nothingness will acquire,” implying that repentance reveals such a deep, inner bond with God that it causes transcendent Divine nothingness to “acquire” us as its own.

Sentencing you to death and annihilation: Repentance kills our lust for materiality, ultimately leading to the annihilation of our sense of self within our overwhelming awareness of God. This surrender of the self as it willingly allows itself to be rapturously absorbed in its overwhelming consciousness of God can only be achieved against the backdrop of the soul’s life in the body, in response to the distance from God that it feels when it is forced to contend with the distractions of God-denying materiality in general and of God-affronting sin in particular. The soul as is exists before it enters the body knows nothing of this intense yearning and pining for release; it is this intensity that makes its journey into life worthwhile, elevating it in the afterlife to level after level of Divine consciousness infinitely higher than its original station before life in the body.

Because of the advantages acquired only through the repentance occasioned by the descent into the body in general and into forbidden realms in particular, God “forces” us, so to speak, into these realms into which He Himself has forbidden us to venture on our own. We have seen this dynamic at work in the incidents of the Tree of Knowledge44 and the Golden Calf;45 this verse expresses this notion with regard to life in general. “God will bring you back to Egypt in slave-ships”: The word for “Egypt” (מצרים) means “limitations”; thus, this phrase allegorically means that “against your will God will force you into the world of limitations, which will require you to repent.”46

Chapter 29


[3] A heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear: These three aspects of perception correspond to the three components of the intellect, derived from the first three sefirot:

· “A heart to know” refers to da’at (“knowledge”)

· “Eyes to see” refers to chochmah (“insight” or “wisdom”), as echoed in the sages’ statement: “Who is wise [i.e., possesses chochmah]? He who sees what is to come.”47

· “Ears to hear” refers to binah (“understanding”).

The difference between chochmah and binah is frequently described as the difference between sight and hearing. Sight is a more direct perception, whereas hearing is more indirect. Similarly, chochmah is direct, virtually supra-intellectual insight, whereas binah is the intellectual process of analysis, which takes the direct insight of chochmah and experiences it indirectly in order to integrate it into the individual’s existing mode of thought.48

8In order that you succeed: The word for “that you succeed” in Hebrew (תשכילו) can also be translated as “that you comprehend.” This allows us to interpret this verse as follows:

You must safeguard the words that constitute this covenant: This refers to the fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments.

In order that you comprehend all that you [should] do: There are many aspects of life in which we struggle to determine how to act in the most spiritually positive fashion. By living in accordance with the Torah’s instructions, we become sensitive to the will of God. This, in turn, aids us in comprehending how to act in accordance with God’s will in the context of those areas of life not directly governed by specific commandments.49

It takes 40 years: Clearly, Moses did not mean that it takes us 40 years to understand the import of any specific lesson we have heard from our teacher, for (a) he included the victories over Sichon and Og in the list of miracles he asked us to take to heart, and these occurred only a short time before Moses’ address to the people; (b) a full 40 years had not elapsed since the people had heard many of the Torah’s teachings, since not all were communicated to them at Mount Sinai—in fact, many of them they had only heard quite recently, as part of Moses’ farewell address; (c) in any case, understanding a lesson is a function of each student’s individual abilities and the effort he or she invests in studying.

Rather, Moses meant that it takes time for the student to internalize the teacher’s methodology and analytical approach to knowledge. Only after observing how the teacher tackles subject after subject, challenge after challenge, will the teacher’s methods crystallize into a coherent methodology in the student’s mind. Once the student has grasped and acquired the teacher’s thinking process, he or she will be able to apply it to any new subject matter that presents itself.

Thus, Moses here meant that now that 40 years had elapsed since the people had first been exposed to the Torah and the worldview it ensconces, and they had had the opportunity to observe God’s ways for all these intervening years, they were now “mature” enough to be expected to live their lives in full accordance with the Torah’s intentions and to be held responsible for their actions.50