Ki Tavo: Speaking God’s Language

In this week’s parsha we find the following two verses, which contain a pair of words that appear nowhere else in the Torah, and whose meaning is not entirely clear:

את ה’ האמרת היום להיות לך לאלהים וללכת בדרכיו ולשמור חקיו ומצותיו ומשפטיו ולשמוע בקולו.
וה’ האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגולה כאשר דבר לך ולשמור כל מצותיו.

You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people…. (Deuteronomy 26:17-18)

The repetition of the words האמרתand האמירך seems to suggest a reciprocity between God and Israel in which we affirm God and God affirms us, though it’s unclear how exactly this mutual affirmation takes place. The classical commentators offer a range of interpretations: Rashi argues that these terms refer to setting aside and consecrating; Ramban claims it refers to magnifying and elevating in status; Rashbam states that this term reflects the fact that each party caused the other to enter into a covenant. But it is also worthy of note that the root of this term is אמר, to say, which seems to suggest that we and God are somehow speaking the same language.

I came to a deeper understanding of what this might mean while reviewing Musaf for Rosh Hashana this past week. The bulk of Rosh Hashana musaf consists of collections of verses relating to three central themes: God’s kingship, God’s perfect memory, and God’s revelation at Sinai amidst the sound of the Shofar. We recite verses that span most of the Bible, from Noah to Abraham to Sinai to Isaiah. And so in our davening on Rosh Hashana, we speak to God using the language of the Bible, which is the language with which God spoke to Israel. In other words (so to speak), we speak to God using the very same words with which God spoke to us. Perhaps this is another way to understand what it means for us to affirm God.

את ה’ האמרת היום –

On Rosh Hashana, we affirm God by invoking God’s words to us. After all, how else could we coronate God, or speak to a being of infallible memory, or recall the transcendence of revelation? Surely our own language is insufficient, which is why we plead in our piyutim for God to open our lips in prayer and give voice to our supplications. When our own language fails us, we speak God’s language, כאשר דבר לך– as God spoke to us.

As we prepare to open our Mahzorim on Rosh Hashana, we hope that the echoes of divine speech will permeate our prayers to God and our exchanges with one another throughout the coming year.

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