Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Ki Tavo – 5783

Parashat Ki Tavo – 5783

August 28, 2023
by Rabbi Ira J. Dounn (’17)

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of talking with someone interested in converting to Judaism. Since the pandemic, I have noticed an uptick in people interested in converting with me. In the conversation, I asked them more about themselves, their story, and their interest in casting their lot with the Jewish people. And although I’ve heard several answers now to this question of “Why do you want to convert?”, I had never heard this one before.

They told the story of being held up by the Christian concept of hell. Raised Catholic, this person was taught from a young age that many people in their life – including many of their best friends – would be condemned to eternal damnation unless they were saved. It turned this person off, so much so that they refused to be confirmed at the age of 12 over it!

It got me thinking: What are the exceptionally difficult things in Jewish tradition to accept for people, and for me? Surely there are a few…

You might identify difficult issues like the concept of chosenness in this category. I’ve known people to balk at the idea of messiah and of resurrection of the dead. Surely the xenophobic language in the traditional Aleinu was off-putting enough that the Reform movement re-wrote it. There are many others too.

One particularly difficult concept – which is not mainstream in Jewish tradition, thankfully – is the idea that we got our comeuppance in the Holocaust – that it happened as retribution for the sins of the Jewish people. Or similarly, that disasters, natural or human-made, happen because the victims deserved it. For example, Rav Ovadia Yosef, after Hurricane Katrina, said the hurricane was “God’s punishment for U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. ‘It was God’s retribution – God does not short-change anyone,’ Yosef said during his weekly sermon (Ovadia Yosef: Katrina Is God’s Punishment for Disengagement – Haaretz Com – Haaretz.com).

One might dismiss such ideology, but then we come upon the overwhelming and horrifying list of curses in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo. What do we make of this simple calculus – perform mitzvot and act properly, and get rewarded, but if you disobey and rebel, you’ll get punished?

וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם֙ בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֔ט תַּ֚חַת אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֱיִיתֶ֔ם כְּכוֹכְבֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָרֹ֑ב כִּי־לֹ֣א שָׁמַ֔עְתָּ בְּק֖וֹל יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You shall be left a scant few, after having been as numerous as the stars in the skies, because you did not heed the command of your G-d. (Deuteronomy 28:62)

In the case of the Catholic hell, or in the case of the Jewish curses listed in our parasha, the aim seems clear. Terrify the people into good behavior. Make the people so afraid that they serve G-d out of fear.

Not only is this not compelling today, one might argue it’s never been compelling. Rashi’s commentary on the Ve’Ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:5), makes this clear:

ואהבת  AND THOU SHALT LOVE [THE LORD] — Fulfil His commands out of love, for one who acts out of love is on a higher plane than one who acts out of fear. He who serves his master out of fear, if he (the master) troubles him too much, the servant will leave him and go away (Sifrei Devarim 32:1).

And that’s exactly what happened with my conversion candidate. They were overburdened by the idea that their friends would spend eternity in hell, and ultimately chose to leave the church.

Clearly, the conversion candidate could choose to reject Judaism for the same reason – we have our own version of fear mongering as seen in our parasha. Having seen the actual horrors of this world, some of us with our own eyes and some through the testimony of others, we know the threat is real. Is this the reason to come back to Jewish practice and belief? Or is it the reason to run far away from it?

It is my sincere hope that the conversion candidate chooses to embrace Judaism because they are inspired by our example of serving G-d out of love, and not fear. As we approach these days of awe and our own processes for introspection and repentance, ask yourself: Are you serving G-d more out of love, or more out of fear? There are people choosing the Jewish community, and there are people leaving it behind.

For their sake and for ours, may we always serve our communities, our families, ourselves, and our G-d, with love.
Rabbi Ira J. Dounn is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Center for Jewish Life – Princeton Hillel, and the teacher of AJR’s Experiential Education course this semester. He was ordained from AJR in 2017, and lives with his wife and children in Highland Park, NJ. He can be reached at [email protected].