Ki Tavo 5778 – There Will Be Consequences

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Parasha Ki Tavo contains one of the most powerful and frightening chapters of the entire Torah. First, there are fourteen verses which outline all the good things which will happen to the Jewish people if they obey God faithfully and observe all the divine commandments. That is the good news. Then comes 54 verses warning of the curses that will befall the Israelites if they do not faithfully observe all the commandments. This is the second time in the Torah Moses tells the prophecies of the sufferings that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to honor their mission as the people of God.  The first was in Vayikra.

These curses are referred to as the tochachah which has a number of different English translations:  warning, rebuke, reprimand, admonition.  However, the actual meaning is “to provide proof”.  The purpose of the tochachah is as a prerequisite to teshuva-return to God and self. The purpose of punishment is not to harm, but to guide and direct. This is the most terrifying account portraying various kinds of Jewish suffering in our classic literature.

The curses are downright horrible. They are not just a simple rebuke. They are specific and even somewhat sadistic. 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, exile and dispersion throughout the world, leading to idolatry and enslavement, and the apocalyptic sulfur and salt will burn the entire land.  Because of its content, for years no one wanted to have the aliyah in which this passage was read. In traditional practice, it is chanted at a very fast speed in a soft, barely audible voice.

What is going on here? In Deuteronomy 28:47, the Torah seems to identify the focal reason for all the punishments:” because you had an abundance of everything, you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart. Really? You get curses because you aren’t happy? Rabbi Simcha Bunim explains this verse as follows: When joy stimulates a person’s actions, those actions are performed completely and correctly. But when joy is lacking, the actions become slipshod. Therefore, the Torah says, it is imperative to be joyous in the service of God. Otherwise, the lack of joy and its byproduct – halfhearted observance – will necessitate corrective consequences from God .

It is okay that the Torah brings up reward and punishment. But why the sadistic curses? Yes, maybe we will fail, but is this really how God will punish us? Doesn’t it seem like a little much?

Essentially these curses are warnings and predictions of the terrible fate that will overtake Jews if they neglect or abandon their covenant with God.  The curses are a form of passionate pleading.

While they seem scary, they, too, are necessary. They serve as a reminder that we are chosen people and that with the position comes a special responsibility, and if that trust is breached there will be consequences.

After 40 years of wandering the desert when the Israelites almost reached the promised land, you would think this would be the end of their challenges. But it will not be. To the contrary, it is in the promised land that the challenge will begin – and it will be the hardest of all the challenges because it will not look like a challenge. Moses told the Israelites that their greatest challenges were not slavery but freedom; not poverty but affluence; not danger but security; not homelessness but home. The paradox is that when we have most to thank God for, that is when we are in the greatest danger of not thanking – or even thinking of – God at all.

That is the story of our time. Throughout the almost unbearable centuries of exile, the wanderings, explosions, forced conversions and through the ghettos and progroms, Jews prayed to God, studied his word, kept His commandments, handed on his message to their children, and held fast to their identity as Jews with tenacity awesome in its strength.

When Jews were persecuted, with only a minority of exceptions, they stayed Jews. When Jews are not persecuted – when they reached heights of affluence and achievement – Jews abandoned Judaism unprecedented numbers. That is the tragedy Moses foresaw in the tochachah of this week’s parasha. It is almost as if Jews need suffering to survive.

Accordingly, Nachmonides explains that the warnings are not merely a scare tactic on behalf of God and Moses. They are an actual description of the persecutions that Jews will experience in the future.

If much of Deuteronomy is a prophetic vision or dream, then the tochachah is a nightmare. Reading the curses in the context of our time, after the Holocaust, they sound like terrible forewarning of what, in fact, occurred.

If these verses were not part of the Torah, they could be mistaken for a Holocaust memoir written by concentration camp survivor.” You will serve your enemies, whom the Lord will send against you- -famine, thirst, destitution, and lacking of everything… And your life will hang in suspense before you. Your being will fear night and day, and you will not believe in your life. In the morning, you say if only it were already evening in the evening you’ll say if there were only already morning…”

After experiencing such horrors of the Holocaust, it is only natural to ask,” where was God?” And,” if there really is a God, how could he allow the inhumanity and cruelty of the Holocaust?” No one questions the source of blessing, but after enduring excruciating pain, people begin to have doubts. Perhaps this is why all the suffering is so vividly portrayed in the Torah. How can the Holocaust be used to deny God’s existence when God, himself, informed us that this event will occur? It seems that Moses is doing more than informing us of the troubles which we will experience.  He is telling us not to lose our faith because of them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says the tochachah raises the most fundamental questions. Is God the God of anger and retribution? The question is most acute in relation to the Holocaust. Why did God not stop the slaughter? To put the dilemma in its sharpest form: either God could not have prevented Auschwitz, or he could but chose not to. If he could not, how then could he be all-powerful? If he could but did not, how can he be all good? These are difficult questions. No tradition has wrestled with them longer or with greater courage than Judaism. There is no answer that will resolve all doubts. The Talmud itself states that God answered every question Moses asked of him except one: Why do bad things happen to good people? There is a profound wisdom in the knowledge that there are some things that will always lie beyond the horizons of human understanding.

But, others argue the Holocaust does not tell us about God but about man. It tells us not about divine justice but about human injustice. The question raised by Auschwitz is not” where was God?” but” where was a man? Where was humanity?”

One principle has always been engraved on the Jewish heart, allowing it to emerge from tragedy with hope intact. It is the principle of” the blessing and the curse” of which Moses spoke so eloquently. When the Jews have suffered, their first reaction is not to blame others but to examine themselves. That is why at times – the times spoken of in the tochachah-have always led to a national renewal, and the worse the times, the greater the renewal. A people capable of seeing suffering is a call from God to return to the covenant, choosing and sanctifying life, is one that can never be defeated because it can never lose hope.

When affluence leads to forgetfulness, and prosperity to religious indifference, we’re in the midst of Judaism’s greatest challenge.

In preparation for Rosh Hashana we read the tochachah. The reason we read this before Rosh Hashanah is because the tochachah is not meant as a punishment. Rather, it serves to cleanse us as we are about to embark on a new year.

Rabbi Sacks says teshuva tells us that history can change because we can change.  We can act differently tomorrow than we did today.

This is the message of the last part of the Torah: the challenges and consequences of choices are the ever-present opportunity for personal growth and advancement.

Shabbat Shalom