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Parashat Ki Tavo

August 24, 2010

By Steve Altarescu

If Deuteronomic theology has not troubled you so far, Ki Tavo will now challenge you as it pushes the concept of reward and punishment to the limit. For the purpose of review here are some highlights of this theology from earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy.

 œGive heed to the laws ¦that you may live to enter and occupy the land.  (Deut: 4:1)

 œObey ¦that it may go well with you.  (4:25)

 œGod ¦keeps the covenant faithfully ¦of those who love God and keep God s commandments but instantly requites destruction on those who reject Him.  (7:9-10)

 œIf you do obey these rules ¦God will maintain ¦the covenant.  (7:12)

 œSee, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments  ¦and curses if you do not obey the commandments.  (11:26)

In summary, the Israelites were told that if they followed the commandments they would be blessed and rewarded, and if they did not they would be cursed and punished.

In Ki Tavo we are presented reprimands, curses and horrific things that will happen if upon entering and living in the promised land the Israelites do not follow God s commandments. Moses charges the people to create a visual-audio experience when they enter the land in order to bring this point across. First Moses instructs that large stones should be set up on Mt. Ebal, covered with plaster and all the words of the Torah should be inscribed on them. Secondly he orders six of the tribes to stand on Mt. Gerizim, representing the blessings and six of the tribes on Mt. Ebal, representing the curses. The Levites were charged with proclaiming the blessings and curses  œto all the people of Israel in a loud voice.  (27:14)

There is great emphasis put on ensuring that the Israelites understand what will befall them depending on their behavior. What I found most shocking is the severity and specificity of the curses. For instance:

 œYour carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky  (28:26).

 œGod will strike you with Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids ¦with madness Â  (28: 27).

 œYou shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters  (28:52).

 œThe Lord will delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out  (28:63).

Plague, poverty, desperation and shame are highlighted through the 48 verses of curses (Deut. 28:20-68). How can we, as modern Jews, possibly come to terms with this theology? One theory is that this theology was useful in explaining the destruction of the Temple and subsequent tragedies. This theory holds that God is not powerless to stop tragedies from happening but is actually responsible for the tragedies that befall us in order to reprimand us so we can improve out behavior. However, these ideas do not work for me. I do not see people rewarded and punished for their deeds and actions by a powerful God who metes out justice.

Instead I look at these verses of threatened curses  œas if  declared by a parent who is fearful of the dangers of the world their child faces as they leave the parental nest. I imagine a parent who warns their child not to hang out with the wrong crowd as they might get killed, not to try marijuana as it might lead to heroin use, not to use credit cards so they don t end up broke on the street, and to brush their teeth so they do not fall out. This type of parenting,  ˜out of fear  is certainly not the type parents in our culture learned by reading Dr. Spock. Parenting or  œgodding  from a place of fear is understandable yet probably not effective.

It certainly was not effective in guiding the Israelites. In the books of Joshua, Samuel and Kings we read of their continual betrayal of God. Our sages tell us that the Second Temple was eventually destroyed and we fell into ruin due to baseless hatred. The Prophets continually admonish the Israelites for not living morally and ethically as they were commanded to do.

Interestingly, our parashah offers us an alternative. According to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (Poland 1765-1827), the Torah does not specify for which sins the Israelites would be punished. The only one it mentions specifically is:

 œBecause you would not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness over the abundance of everything ¦you will have to serve ¦in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything the enemies whom the Lord will let loose upon you. (28:47-48)

The commandment to rejoice appears frequently in the Book of Deuteronomy (12:7, 16:14-15 and above). Maimonides teaches that whoever holds oneself back from rejoicing in the fulfillment of a mitzvah and the love of God does a great service and one who does not is worthy of retribution (The Laws of Lulav 8:14).

The key to this teaching is that if we can parent and teach by instilling the joy of living religious, ethical lives filled with acknowledgement of  ˜everything  we have been given in this world we are more likely to be successful in creating interested Jews. I would like to think that despite the myriad number of punishments with which God threatens the Israelites, God would prefer that we live joyfully and with an  ˜attitude of gratitude  rather than having to threaten punishments. As parents and teachers we certainly would prefer that our children find joy in living an ethical Jewish life.

The difficulty is when people are not in a state of joy and gratitude. The rabbis imply that most people are not moved to live an ethical life through joy as evidenced by the statement:

 œIf it were not for the fear of the government people would swallow one another alive.  (Pirke Avot 3:2).

I would suggest that we, just as God and Moses did, will fail if we attempt to bring religion to our young people without tremendous joy, gladness and gratitude for all we are given in this world. Heschel replaced the concept of  ˜fear  with the concept of  ˜awe and wonder  as the more fitting and uplifting religious attitude. He wrote:

 œAwe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy  (Between God and Man, page 53).

When we experience the true awesomeness of the world and each other then we can only be filled with joy and gladness for the opportunity to experience everything we have been given and are drawn to serving the source of all.

Steve Altarescu is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.