Parashat כי תבא concludes the long list of mitzvot of ספר דברים, with only 6 mitzvot (compared to 74 in last week’s parasha). That’s a 5% mitzvah rate rather than a 67% one! The bulk of the parasha is the תוכחה, the prophecy of destruction that will happen if we do not obey the Torah. Notably, it ends on an incredibly down note:
There isn’t a hope of redemption, unlike the תוכחה in ספר ויקרא, in Bechutotai:
Ramban explains the difference, that the תוכחה of ויקרא is a prophecy of the destruction of the first בית המקדש and the exile to Babylonia. That had a foretold end; they knew they would return after 70 years and so the warning in the Torah includes the salvation as well.
The תוכחה of דברים is a prophecy of the destruction of the second בית המקדש, and the seemingly interminable exile that we still endure today. There is no reassuring salvation this time, at least in this week’s parasha (next week’s parasha speaks of the ultimate salvation, which is one of the tenets of our belief—אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה בְּבִיאַת הַמָּשִֽׁיחַ, וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁיִּתְמַהְמֵֽהַּ, עִם כָּל זֶה אֲחַכֶּה לּוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם שֶׁיָּבוֹא). But this week seems to leave everything hopeless.
Tosaphot asks the obvious question: that’s not what we do! We have another week before Rosh Hashana. They give two answers: First, Nitzavim next week also contains some mention of curses. And, second, we don’t want to end the year on a such a hopeless note. The two answers are really one: in Nitzavim, while it does start with some mention of punishment (דברים פרק כט:כב) גפרית ומלח שרפה כל ארצה לא תזרע ולא תצמח ולא יעלה בה כל עשב; כמהפכת סדם ועמרה אדמה וצביים אשר הפך ה׳ באפו ובחמתו׃, the climax is the mitzvah of teshuva and the promise of ultimate redemption. It is thus the appropriate way to enter Rosh Hashana.
So why not put them together? Nitzavim is a really short parasha. Just read Ki Tavo-Nitzavim, get the curses in right before Rosh Hashana, and add the note of teshuva to keep us from going into the Yomim Noraim in complete despair!
I think that we need to read the tochacha on its own in order to take it seriously. It’s too easy to read a prophecy of “things will get bad, but they’ll get better” and become complacent. The separation of Ki Tavo and Nitzavim serves as the penultimate stage of Elul, realizing the negative consequences of our actions, leading to the ultimate stage of Nitzavim and teshuva.
But even this week is not all gloom and doom. While the parasha does not conclude with a message of ultimate salvation, the haftorah is all about it.
And ה׳ promises that this will, in fact, happen:
The Gemara asks what does this mean, בעתה אחישנה, ”in its time I will hasten it“? If ה׳ brings the גאולה on time, then it isn’t hastened!
What does this mean? If we as a community deserve it, ה׳ will bring the גאולה. That’s the usual model of reward and punishment. But that’s not the only model of redemption. The assumption is that there is a finite length to גלות, that eventually we will be redeemed even if we do nothing. The gemara adds that Mashiach will come to a generation that is completely deserving or to a generation that is completely guilty. This idea, that Mashiach will come at some point even if we do not deserve it, is the meaning of the pasuk in חבקוק that we quote in the אֲנִי מַאֲמִין:
Mashiach may be “delayed”, not that the time has passed, but that we have the potential of bringing him sooner and now he is coming later than we expect. So when is this guaranteed time? Many people have tried to answer this, to predict the coming of Mashiach, but חז״ל have one answer:
The Rambam goes into this in more detail in his אגרת תימן, a letter written to the Jews of Yemen who were being forced to convert to Islam. They questioned whether the Torah really had been replaced by the Koran; perhaps their persecutors were right. Rambam explains in one section of his response that, while we believe in prophecy, we can’t assign specific dates or interpretations to them:
But still, it sounds like we have an easy way out. Wait long enough, and all our problems will be solved. Why bother with teshuva? The Gemara goes on to explain that it’s not so simple. If we get to the point of בעתה, the predicted time of the eschatological redemption, we will do teshuva, whether we want to or not:
So as we enter into these last weeks before ראש השנה, we should work on our תשובה so we can bring the ultimate גאולה, במהרה בימינו, as ה׳ declares: אחישנה.