Ki Tavo (September 5, 2009)
Deuteronomy 26: (1) When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, (2) you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.
Deuteronomy 28: (1) Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. (2) All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the LORD your God.
(15) But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
Before examining the Tokhackah further, my interest in theater compels me to remark on the mise-en-scène associated with this remarkable warning. Standing on the eastern side of the Jordan, the people are near the end of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. They are about to enter the Promised Land, and Moses is approaching the end of his valedictory discourses to them, wherein he has summarized and reiterated God’s commandments. At this moment, Moses enjoins the people to undertake several ceremonies upon entering the Land, beginning his orders with the words “Ki Tavo,” the name of the portion, meaning “when you enter.”
First, they are to inscribe all the words of the Torah on giant stone pillars that are to be arrayed, Aku Aku-like, on Mount Ebal — a public display of the laws that reinforces each person’s responsibility to fulfill them. Then the people are to construct a stone altar, without the use of iron tools, on which they will prepare sacrifices for God. Finally, Moses charges the people to conduct an extraordinary drama. They are to divide themselves into two groups: six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim and six tribes on Mount Ebal. All the Levites are to proclaim 12 sins, each beginning with the phrase “Cursed be he who,” to which all others will respond in antiphonal unity “Amen.” This epic scene of Cecil B. DeMille proportions, with its impressive solemnity and awesome majesty, evokes the tremendum of Sinai and serves, in fact, as its coda: in the one the commandments are delivered in the desert, in the other the people will ratify their acceptance of the covenantal relationship with God in the Land.
As if the scenario Moses just described were his inspiration, he segues into a fearsome recitation of blessings and curses. Unlike the Tokhackah of Leviticus where Moses delivered the rebuke from the mouth of God, here Moses speaks on his own directly to the people. He begins by enunciating a series of blessings that will be the reward for obedience to God’s mandates: healthy families, abundant crops, prosperity, protection from your enemies, the admiration of the nations. Then comes the big “But.” If the people deviate from God’s wishes and fail to observe the commandments, then they will be cursed and their suffering will be boundless. There will be pestilence, epidemic diseases, drought, famine, imprisonment, exile, slavery, discord between neighbors and family members, and all manner of conceivable affliction. With mind-numbing horror, Moses reels off a litany of punishments that far outweigh the short list of blessings — 14 verses of blessings and 53 verses of curses!
I find this a very problematic section of the Torah. Deuteronomy and much of Rabbinic exegesis thereafter postulates a binary theology of reward and punishment: If you are good, then you will reap rewards and blessing; if you are bad, then you will suffer. Setting aside the question of theodicy — why the good oftentimes suffer and the wicked thrive — there is a more profound issue that arises here: Are we, indeed, to believe that all suffering stems from the sins we commit, and what appears to us as undeserved suffering is, in fact, the result of sins we commit unconsciously? Is the cancer that invades someone’s body the result of that person’s undisclosed misdeeds? Is the tree that falls and kills someone somehow connected to that person’s disloyalty to God? Such questions point to the difficulties of reading the Tokhackah literally. In a post-Shoah world, attempting to link suffering to some remote source of sin is simply absurd. What sin did 1 million children commit that necessitated the forfeiture of their lives?
We might achieve a better understanding of the curses and what they represent by looking at the first part of this portion. Moses instructs the people to tithe the first fruits of their harvest, the ceremony of bikurim, and to give it to the “Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.” The essence of this commandment is to promote an understanding that God is the essential source of all creation and that all our achievements, whether in farming or business, are rooted in God’s beneficence. The bikurim prompt us to constantly acknowledge God as the source of all life.
Within this context the curses are a stark reminder that our actions have consequences. All the suffering that befalls us is not within our power to avert, however, what we do and how we behave does determine our destiny. The curses are an urgent appeal to underscore the obligations of individual responsibility, particularly the responsibility to acknowledge God and to act righteously. Our actions indeed have the power to affect blessings and curses.
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