Ki Tavo

September 2, 2015

In this weeks Sedra, the Netziv discusses the word “hashkif” look or gaze which Rashi has told us is always negative except in one place, in our sedra where it means to look benignly.

Why should this be? Why is it that people can look at the same thing but see it differently. The Netziv discusses this phenomenon.

“Gaze down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel and the Land that You gave us…”

How do we see something? It all depends how you look at it.

You can look critically, admiringly, lovingly or contemptuously. The Torah uses different verbs to connote the different ways we look at things. We are therefore surprised that the Torah pleads with Hashem: “Hashkifah”/ gaze down from the heavens. Hashkifah always means to look disapprovingly! The angels sent to overthrow Sodom “gaze down” at the city; Hashem “gazed down” upon the Egyptians just before bringing the Sea crashing down upon their heads.

Twice in every shemitah cycle a person declares before G-d in the beis hamikdosh that he has done his duty in regard to all the ma’asros and directed them to their proper recipients. Immediately thereafter, he asks Hashem for a brachah. He begins by requesting that He “gaze down” from His abode – employing the verb that means looking disapprovingly! Why would a person ask Hashem to look at us disapprovingly?

Chazal had a fix for this. The Torah, they tell us, wishes to convey that the merit of the proper distribution of ma’aser produce is so great, that it can change Hashem’s glance from a negative one to a positive one. But we still do not understand. Why employ a double negative to get to a positive? Instead of calling for Hashem’s disapproving gaze, and then neutralizing it in the merit of the mitzvah of ma’aser, why not avoid the unsavory reference, and simply ask Him to smile upon His children in the first place?

And just where do we fix Hashem’s residence, kevayachol, in our pasuk? Is “holy abode” the same as “the heavens?” This might seem defensible, but really is not, on the level of plain pshat. If the pasuk were trying to convey to us that they are one and the same, there would be no need to repeat the word “from,” as if they were two distinct places.

Indeed, the gemara speaks of seven different heavens. “Abode” – in contradistinction to shomayim, the place of the celestial spheres – is seen by the gemara as the place of the ministering angels. Yet it offers no proof for this assertion, unlike the other levels of heaven mentioned there.

Here is what our pasuk actually means. The questions speak to each other; taken together, everything falls into place. “Heaven” and “Abode” do refer to distinct realms. We ask that Hashem should behold us from His heavens, and shower us with berachah – but not until He first look disapprovingly at the Abode. The reason for disapproval is straightforward, even if difficult for us to fully comprehend. We would expect that the contrast between fallible and often failed human beings and their spiritual competitors should be huge and absolute. The ministering angels ought to make us look bad. The point is that they don’t. Chazal somehow are critical of them. The celestial citizens don’t always get it right. For example, the angels who told Lot “we are about to destroy the place” performed imperfectly, either by prematurely revealing what should have been kept hidden, or by implying that they possessed some independent power, rather than Hashem.

Rather than make us look bad, they do the opposite. We daven to G-d: Please gaze down – disapprovingly – by way of Your own ministering angels. Do You find perfection in them? Or is that reserved only for Yourself, without exception? You will certainly not be entirely pleased with what You detect in the world of the angelic. If the angels cannot deliver on perfection, is it so surprising that mortal humans fall short of that goal? Don’t humans deserve to be judged with a yardstick of compassion?

The pasuk thus means: Gaze down disapprovingly at Your angels in the Abode, and then look approvingly at us humans from the other heavens! The second phrase really ought to have employed a different verb in place of “gaze” – one that is more upbeat and accepting. Here is where the ma’amar Chazal we mentioned earlier comes in. While such a verb (like from the other heavens) would fit more naturally, the Torah utilized hashkifah for both phrases, to teach that in the merit of properly assigned ma’aseros, Hashem changes His stance from judgment to compassion!

How appropriate for this week when we commence selichot in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.

Shabbat shalom.

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