Torah from Around the World #288

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Rabbi Fred Morgan

AM, Emeritus Rabbi,

Temple Beth Israel

, Melbourne, Australia

The portion

Ki Tavo

concludes Moses’ discourse to the people Israel with a set of blessings and curses, the consequences of their actions in following or rejecting God’s commands. Jewish tradition has never felt comfortable with these


, or admonitions, and it does what it can to minimise their impact. For example, when they are read from Torah in synagogue they are recited in a lower tone than the rest of Torah and as quickly as possible. In any case, in our time very few of us would agree with the theology behind the curses.

Though we may not wish to dwell on the


, there are deep lessons to be learned from them, especially about the psychology of loss and deracination. The long list of curses concludes with the worst curse, an intense and disturbing description of exile and its meaning. Ultimately, “your life shall hang in doubt before you” and “you shall have nothing to assure your life” (Deut. 28:66). Whether you are sold into slavery or are forced onto boats to flee persecution – two options mentioned in the Torah – the choices that define freedom will not be yours. The basics of life, bread on the table, a roof over your head, clothing on your back, will not be yours to determine. It will be for you a return to


, a place of narrowness and constriction, the ultimate symbol of bondage and misery in Jewish tradition.

The phrase, “you shall have nothing to assure your life,” has multiple meanings. In the


reading, it refers to the most basic level of survival, a total reliance on others for the food we eat. (So it is in Rashi’s commentary on Deut. 28:66; Babylonian Talmud Menachot 103b; Esther Rabbah petichta 1). The Torah here follows its own example: in the days of the patriarch Jacob when famine strikes Israel, Jacob tells his sons to go down to Egypt (


) to buy grain (Genesis 42:2). One who must buy grain in the marketplace must be in danger from starvation; to have to buy in the


is to “go down” in the world, to be at the bottom of one’s life. Though our modern life-style has turned this image on its head as we go shopping in the supermarket, we can still appreciate its meaning. In ancient times only the person who could provide for himself was truly free. Having to buy your bread from another was a sign of poverty, not wealth.

That is one meaning of “you shall have nothing to assure your life.” But there are other meanings as well. It also refers to our control over our own destiny. An alternative translation is, “There is no assurance of survival.” In exile, we are not merely demeaned, we are also disempowered. Our destiny hangs on the whims of others. Jewish history is an object lesson in the disempowerment of exile. Expulsions from England, from Spain, from Germany, from Russia mark the pages of our chronicle through time. Recently I visited Thessaloniki in northern Greece, previously called Salonika. Under the Ottomans the Jewish population seeking refuge from Spain, Portugal and Italy flourished in the city, contributing to its greatness as a centre of commerce and learning. Today, the Jewish presence consists of a Jewish museum, a Holocaust monument, and a synagogue with memorial boards giving the names and foundation dates of all the synagogues that used to grace the city from “Etz Chayim” in 1492 onwards – and that is all. There is no sign of the vibrant Jewish life that once contributed so much to the vitality and wealth of the city. Jewish visitors to Thessaloniki today see that the city is haunted by “the presence of an absence.”

A third sense of the phrase is, “You shall have no faith (

lo ta’amin

) in your life.” It is the antithesis of the verse in Torah that follows the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and immediately precedes the Song at the Sea: “[the people] had faith (


) in the Eternal and in God’s servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).  The verbal root


indicates faith, trust, and hope. As slaves, as boat people they shall find no meaning in life; they shall lack trust in life.

This sense of the curse resonates strongly in the current world situation. The world is overcome with refugees, with people fleeing devastation and terror. We in Australia are particularly aware of the situation of people forced onto boats to flee persecution or poverty, slavery or statelessness, in their countries of origin. But our awareness carries with it a deep sense of shame. Australia is gaining a reputation for heartlessness in its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees through its handling of boats coming from Indonesia and Thailand. Both major political parties in Australia hold firmly to a “no-boats” policy. Refugees who attempt to come by sea are forcibly turned away, and the government takes pride in its extreme rejectionist approach.

The Australian situation was recently the theme of a powerful reality-television series, “Go Back to Where You Came From”. Six Australians holding widely divergent views on asylum seekers who attempt to arrive by boat were taken on a reverse journey through the detention centres, across the seas and back to the countries from which real-life refugees had fled, a Palestinian family from Iraq and a Rohingya man from Myanmar. It was fascinating to see which participants changed their views through their dialogical experiences, and which of them had their views reinforced. But permeating the whole series was the intense feeling of hopelessness that had driven the refugees to seek purpose and meaning elsewhere, even at the threat to their lives and the lives of their families, pursuing freedom in a land that showed no desire to welcome them.

As Jews, we have lived the curses of

Ki Tavo

. But we remain alive as a people because we have never lost hope. We have somehow maintained “faith in our life,” the sense of meaning and purpose that our people felt under God when they stood on the shores of the Sea all those millennia ago. It is our destiny to recognise the need for trust and hope that we see in others, and to do what we can to help them.

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