Parashat Ki Tavo contains one of the most powerful and frightening chapters of the Torah. Fourteen verses (Deuteronomy 28:1–14) outline all the good things that will happen to the people if they obey God and faithfully observe all of the divine commandments. That’s “the good news.” Then come 54 verses (28:15–69) warning of the antithesis: the curses that will befall the people if they do not faithfully observe all the commandments. This is the most terrifying litany portraying various kinds of Jewish suffering in our classical literature. Because of its content, for years no one wanted to have the aliyah in which this passage was read, and it was sometimes given to the town fool. In traditional practice, it is chanted at breakneck speed in a soft voice, loud enough to hear but only if one strains a little.
The punishments explicitly threatened in this chapter include terrible diseases, conquest by merciless foreign enemies, famine to the point where parents will eat the flesh of their own children, and exile and dispersion throughout the world, leading to idolatry and enslavement. All this in the Torah of which we say, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). Not much pleasantness and peace in these 54 verses.
Not surprisingly, there is a fascinating history of interpretation for individual verses in this litany of horrors. But the larger question: What are we to make of this extraordinarily powerful and disturbing passage, indicating the most severe punishments imaginable, both in the Land of Israel and in exile from the Land, for Jews who fail to fulfill their part of the covenant by observing all of the commandments? We certainly do not accept the fundamentalist, Orthodox belief that every word in this passage was God’s literal Revelation. Is a God who could orchestrate these horrifying natural and historical terrors as punishment for failing to eat kosher food or even failing to give charity to the poor a God whom we could worship? Progressive Jews hold that the Torah was written by human beings, presumably out of the sincere belief that this was consistent with the substance of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. But how are we to imagine the intention of an author writing these words? It seems to me that there are two possibilities, each of them problematic.
The first is that the author intended this passage as it is presented: a warning to the people, mobilizing the most fearsome threats that the mind could conjure in order to impel the people to remain faithful to their God. Do what God wants, the author says, because otherwise you and your children, and future generations, will suffer punishments more grievous than you can imagine. The passage reminds me of a scene in a book I read as an undergraduate English literature major: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, specifically the sermon delivered by a Catholic priest to a group of young boys, perhaps 12 years old, on a spiritual retreat. In this passage, the preacher describes to the youngsters the eternal torment in hell that awaits them if they should sin: the torment of being so crowded with other sinners that they will be unable to move a single limb; the torment of utter darkness, of awful stench, of searing fire, of torture by other sinners and by companies of hideous devils. Each of these is described in excruciatingly vivid detail. Having heard this, the hero of the book — the young Stephen Dedalus — “came down the aisle of the chapel, his legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers. . . . Every word for him!”
But is this the way to motivate the religious life — either for individual children, as in Joyce’s vignette, or for the entire people, as in the passage from our parashah? Can the terror of threatened punishments produce a sustained commitment to piety or to goodness? The noblest achievements of human beings are impelled not by threats that produce anxiety and fear, but rather by providing positive models of piety and commitment and empathy and holiness.
A second explanation for the passage is that it was written not primarily as a warning about the future, but as an actual description of the historical experience of the people of Israel in biblical times presented as an object lesson. An author in Judea knew about what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel — how the Assyrian armies had swept through the Land, destroying city after city and finally the capital city of Samaria, imposing massive deportations of the population and bringing in other peoples to settle the Land, scattering the exiles throughout the Assyrian empire, prohibiting them from maintaining their own religious institutions.
Rather than conclude that this traumatic experience was simply a matter of superior military might and international power politics, the author wanted to communicate the message that:
- it was consistent with God’s will,
- the cause of the disaster was the religious failings of the Northern Kingdom,
- God is in control of historical events even when the divine presence seems hidden and inscrutable, and
- the covenant still remains intact.
In this reading, the passage is a response to a catastrophe that has already occurred, warning that it might be repeated.
Throughout our history, Jewish religious thinkers and moralists have tended to explain Jewish suffering in this way: we suffer because we have sinned, and the challenge is to identify the sins and to rectify them. It is, to be sure, a blame-the-victim approach, and this is one reaction to suffering that modern psychology teaches us to avoid at all costs. When a person suffers, the most important message is to reassure that person by saying, “It’s not your fault.” Yet this traditional response did at least communicate that there was a meaning to the suffering, and that what we need to do in response is to keep the faith, strengthen our loyalty to tradition, try even harder to be good Jews.
After the Holocaust, of course, this traditionalist interpretation of suffering as divine punishment has been relegated to the lunatic fringe of fundamentalist theologies. It is the kind of thinking that led the Satmarer Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum to write that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the greatest sin ever committed by the Jewish people: the sin of Zionism. It is the kind of thinking that Israel’s Rav Ovadiah Yosef used a dozen years ago to assert that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for President Bush’s pressure on Israel to withdraw from Gush Katif in Gaza and for the absence of Torah study in the largely black population of New Orleans. And then, not to be outdone, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson four months later proposed the same explanation of divine punishment for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s devastating stroke.
Any efforts to apply the worldview of Deuteronomy 28 to the actual Jewish experience in history or to the suffering of human beings anywhere — from tsunamis or famine or bombing of hospitals — seems abhorrent and blasphemous, simply a non-starter for us in a post-Holocaust world. Even the suggestion that the ritual behavior of Jews might lead to the destruction of the State of Israel and the loss of the Jewish homeland as a divine punishment seems appalling.
I see no way of salvaging these terrifying 54 verses from Parashat Ki Tavo except as a passage of literary and historical interest. It is part of our Sacred Scripture, a part from which many of us will dissent. Neither this vision of unmitigated horrors nor the depiction of serene enjoyment of the bounty of the Land flowing with milk and honey earlier in the parashah reflects our experience of history, or our understanding of God’s relationship to history.
Perhaps then it is best to conclude not with the parashah, but with the haftarah — which has its own problems — but contains within its promise for a better future a hauntingly resonant verse (Isaiah 60:18):
Lo yishama od ḥamas b’artzech, “No more shall violence (ḥamas) be heard in your land,”
Shod vashever big’vulayich, “Desolation and destruction within your borders,”
V’karat y’shu-ah cḥomotayich, ush’arayich t’hilah, “But you shall name your walls ‘Deliverance’ and your gates “’Renown.’”
Ken yehi ratzon. (“May it be [God’s] will.”)
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.