By: Rabbi Peter Knobel, Rabbi Emeritus of
the Free Synagogue, Evanston, Illinois, USA
The Blessing and the Curse
Ki Tavo is a very challenging Torah portion. Theologically it conditions blessing and curses to the faithful observance of the Divine commands. The fate of the people is directly related to their behavior. The blessings are prosperity, health, safety and political dominance, the curses are the opposite. The curses are described in greater and more excruciating detail than the blessings. The level of destruction, despair and depravity of the curses reaches its nadir in Deuteronomy 28: 54-57:
“He who is most tender and fastidious among you shall be too mean to his brother and the wife of his bosom and the children he has spared has nothing else left as a result of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in all your towns. And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter, the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears; she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns.”
It is hard to imagine a direr situation than the one described in this passage. The reader cannot help but recoil at the horror, devastation and despair that will come to pass if all norms of conventional behavior have disappeared. Because of this, when the curses are read in the synagogue they are recited in a whisper so as to mitigate the horror; as if by reciting them quietly they will not actually occur.
Reform Judaism has largely rejected deuteronomic theology of reward and punishment. Especially since the Shoah, it has become almost blasphemous to suggest that the Shoah is a result of the sins of the Jewish people. It is difficult to conceive of God as having deliberately inflicted such punishment on so many innocents. The death of one million children is inconsistent with a just God and certainly with a good and merciful God. In the face of such horror we retreat into divine inscrutability or divine impotence or to atheism. We are perfectly willing to accept blessings as coming from the Divine but the calculus of Divine punishment seems beyond our comprehension.
Ki Tavo challenges our worldview as a religious covenanted people. The text in 28:14 enjoins us: “do not deviate to the right or to the left from any of the commandments.” We are expected to be on the straight and narrow. Punctilious observance has great reward but deviation will bring potential disaster. One only need recall the 1974 Ma’alot massacre of seventeen children in Northern Israel, which the Rebbe attributed it to the lack of kosher mezuzot in the school, or the Haredi theologians who see the Shoah as just punishment by a righteous God for the sins of Zionism, Reform Judaism and assimilation.
In one sense these theological positions make sense of the incomprehensible and justify a strict adherence to halakha (Jewish law). It is somehow comforting to believe that God is in charge and that both the bad and the good have meaning. The meaning may not be clear but as it says in the Union Prayer Book: “in the fullness of time we shall know why we are tried.” Over the years I have struggled with theology. I have wanted to understand who God is and how He/She is in the world. No answer has really satisfied me. My religious world is now one beyond theology. God remains part of my life—an inspiration—a challenge. I live in relationship with God and eschew concepts.
As Jews, we accept the concept that behavior has consequences and are well aware that humans are capable of indescribable evil. Some of the curses in Ki Tavo could be lifted out of the daily headlines where evil actors in the name of religion, ethnicity, the pursuit of power, or deep prejudice are prepared to inflict unspeakable suffering on other human beings. However, when we conceive of God, we recognize that we cannot wait for Divine intervention. Human passivity and inaction allows evil to mock our righteous proclamations.
As I read Ki Tavo I believe that God wants us – God wants all of humankind – to live lives of blessing. One primary theme of the covenant is concern for the weakest members of society exemplified by the widow, the fatherless and the stranger. Another is that each human being is created in the image of God and to save a single life is analogous to saving all of humanity. Racism, terrorism, poverty, climate change, xenophobia, homophobia, rising anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and numerous simultaneous wars present us with almost unfathomable challenges. The list is an alphabet of woes, which we confess to on Yom Kippur.
With such a list it is easy to become overwhelmed and feel impotent. However, our task is to turn
— not away from — the pain. Our struggle is to look into the face of another and see the face of God. It is to turn outward rather than inward. We can never be content as long as some live lives of desperation. Judaism calls on us to bridge the chasm that separates neighbors from neighbors and neighbors from strangers.
We are constantly reminded that we are all children of the original male/female human who is called Adam. We are all members of the human family. God is not found in abstract thought nor housed in concepts; God is found in performing mitzvot. There is a famous Talmudic passage in which God says “Would that they abandon Me and observe My Torah for then they would find Me.” We are taught to do — for doing becomes belief. Doing bridges the gap between God and humankind. At Sinai we said, “
. We will do for only then shall we understand.”
I am aware as I conclude this Dvar Torah that I write as an upper middle class male from the Chicago suburbs and have had a life filled with blessing for which I have immense gratitude. In Ki Tavo we see the potential for life to be filled with blessings, but also filled with the terror of the curses. My task – our task – is to listen to the cry of the oppressed and frightened. While we cannot control what will happen, we can play our part by lifting up those who suffer and work toward a better world. It is no easy task; but as Klal Israel we wrestle with God and our fellow human beings seeking blessings and striving to be blessings to humankind.