Drash on Parashat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Stanton M Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
When meeting with B’nai Mitzvah families to consider a date for a child to be called to the Torah, I often get asked this question: “Is it a good Torah portion?” I always give the same answer: “Every Torah portion is good. There is always something to say.” As Obi-Wan Kenobi would say, this is true— from a certain point of view.
With the right guidance, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah will be able to deliver a meaningful drasha no matter what parasha they are assigned, but not all parshiot are created equal. Some are more challenging than others. A kid might wonder if in fact they have been given the fuzzy end of the lollypop if their big day is Shabbat Ki Tavo, for example.
There are some easier bits like the first fruits declaration, which includes the well known passage that is drashed in the Haggadah. The Torah’s “Stonehenge,” the monuments with “all the words of this Teaching (Torah)” inscribed on them, is interesting too. But the vast bulk of the parasha is devoted to the benefits of obedience to the Torah and the horrendous consequences of failing to fulfill all its requirements. The punishments for faithlessness receive much more attention than the rewards for compliance.
The parasha is a stark example of the theology of Deuteronomy. Do right and you will be secure, you will prosper, and your posterity will be assured. Do wrong and inherit disaster— war, starvation, and death. What are we to do with this material? How do we find meaning in a passage like the following?
“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:
Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country.
Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock.
Cursed shall you be in your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings.
Yes, there is a reciprocal passage that promises blessing in all the same spheres of life, but this is of no help. We cannot accept a vision of God as some kind of cosmic vending machine, where we insert the correct amount of faithfulness and receive peace and prosperity in return.
I choose to read such texts as predictive rather than punitive. These curses are more likely to befall us if we try to navigate life without Torah, without moral direction and curbs on our most destructive impulses. Bad things can still happen to Chosen People, but bad things surely follow a life devoted to the idolatry of the self.
Elsewhere in the parasha we find a ceremony that Nahum Sarna calls “the anathematization of clandestine sins.” The Levites are to call out these sins and the people must respond with an “amen” each time, acknowledging that one who commits these acts is “arur,” cursed. The last in the list is: “Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching (Torah) and observe them.—And all the people shall say, Amen.”
I could say a qualified “amen” to this. I cannot accept Deuteronomy’s view of reward and punishment, but I do believe that a world without Torah is cursed. It is cursed from the bottom up, by our own misdeeds, which are their own form of punishment. So when we read that forsaking God means that “Adonai will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake,” we can find truth in these words, without the need to take on all of Deuteronomy’s theological baggage. Surely, a world without moral guidance is likely to be a place of chaos.
Am I reading against the text here? Certainly, but if we don’t do that in some way we are left with just two other alternatives. We could swallow the text whole, accepting its literal sense and ignoring the resulting dissonance with the world as we know it. Alternatively, we could treat the text as a relic of another age. It might still be interesting from an antiquarian perspective, but it would then have nothing to say to us today. This would render the text mute and inert. As a religious, Progressive Jew neither of these two approaches is permitted to me.
In God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Biblical texts must not be read literally, “because a literal understanding would be a partial hollow understanding; because the literal meaning is but a minimum of meaning.” Navigating the fruitful but difficult middle path between this minimum of meaning and outright rejection of the sacredness of Torah is a task we must each undertake in our own way. Seeing the blessings and curses of Ki Tavo as a message about the human power, for good or ill, to shape the world we will live in works for me. This teaching seems particularly apt for a time of year when we will be asked to choose between life and death, between blessing and curse.
In the coming year, may we act so as to be conduits of blessing into the world. May we shun paths that blight our lives and those of others. May we choose life.