I am coming down with a cold. I find it difficult to think clearly when having post-nasal drip. So I have quoted from past comments to a greater degree than usual below. But it’s still good reading, IMO.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, starts cheerfully and gets increasingly dark. We first read about ceremonial offerings to be brought by the Israelites in their new land. As I noted last year, “First, we read instructions for the offering of the first fruits, which Maimonides tells us was a really happy event, with growing parades of travelers to Jerusalem, festive baskets to carry the offerings, recitation of the same ceremonial words (“My father was a wandering Aramean…”) acknowledging Who was in the end responsible for their goodies, and lots of music and singing. Sounds like fun. Donation of the tithes for the Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows, is done with similar ceremony. This enables one to give mindfully.”
Next, the people are told to write down the law on plaster-coated rocks, a sizeable task but not as labor-intensive as carving. Biblical billboards. This method was used by ancient Near Eastern rulers to boast of their achievements, as in Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias:
“…And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains….”
Textual images are still positive: We are told three times within several verses that the land flows with milk and honey. An altar to be built must be made of unhewn stones (cf. the command to build the Temple without iron implements – even the tools must be those of peace). In Israel in 1999, I saw a Canaanite prayer circle built of unhewn stones, still pretty much intact after 6,000 years.
Imagery starts to get darker. After crossing the Jordan, the tribes are to assemble on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, six tribes on each. The Levites, in the valley between, are to call out a series of 12 curses, to each of which the people respond “Amen!” These curses end with 27:26,”Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them. — And all the people shall say, Amen.”
There are blessings, too, a series of rewards soothingly promised as a consequence of obedience – the usual rewards, like fertility, abundance, prosperity, the fear (or respect?) of the other nations, and being the Lord’s holy nation. It is not difficult to describe the blessings.
But there follow 55 verses of very graphic, detailed curses known as the Tochachah (warning, admonition), which are traditionally chanted by the Torah reader very quickly in an undertone. We read the minor Tochachah in Leviticus 26:3-46 and I compared the two last year. The curses in Deuteronomy are much worse, not just because of the details, but because they are uniformly horrible, while the ones in Leviticus only progress in severity in steps if disobedience continues. In Leviticus, this is like a parent trying to train a child to behave, resorting to harsher punishments as deemed necessary. In Deuteronomy, everything is laid on the line at once, like communicating with a more responsible teen or adult. The curses encompass political subjugation and dispersion, starvation, cannibalism, destruction, condemnation by others, disease, and constant futility (someone else will lie with your betrothed, you’ll build a house and another will live in it, you’ll plant olive trees and vines but get no oil or wine from them, etc.).
But to me, the very worst are the emotional punishments in 28:65-67:
“…you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest. The Lord will give you there an anguished heart and eyes that pine and a despondent spirit. 66 The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!” — because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”
As I wrote here 5 years ago, “Another translation of v. 66, more exact and even more terrifying, is outright insanity: ‘And your life will hang before you, and you will be frightened night and day, and you will not believe in your life.’ What a nightmare. (See R. Avi Weinstein’s comments, ‘The Worst Curse Is To Lose All Control’ athttp://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/kitavo_hillel2000.shtml).”
After all that, Moses reminds the Israelites of all the miracles they’ve experienced, though he has his doubts about their ability to appreciating them. The portion ends on a begrudgingly positive note, that if the people actively the Lord’s covenant, they will succeed.
The haftarah, Isaiah 60:1-22, is the sixth Haftarah of Consolation, full of light, both physical and divine radiance. It is indeed consoling to read in light of the horrors of the Tochachah.
We are approaching the end of Elul and the beginning of a new year, Rosh Hashanah. At a late Saturday night service tomorrow, we’ll read Selichot, communal prayers asking for forgiveness, a preview to the High Holy Days.
Ties and Offerings
The children’s pastor carefully explained why it is important for everyone to put their “tithes and offerings” in the plate every Sunday. At offering time, following his leader’s instructions, little seven year old Billy removed his clip-on tie and placed it in the plate!
Submitted by Ken, 3/1/06
Quotes on Blessings
To go to the synagogue with one’s father on the Passover eve – is there in the world a greater pleasure than that? What is it worth to be dressed in new clothes from head to foot, and to show off before one’s friends? Then the prayers themselves – the first Festival evening prayer and blessing. Sholom Aleichem
(2 of) 27 Totally Baffling Russian Signs
- When digging, please assist anyone accidentally buried alive.
- If your child is misbehaving, feed her to alligators.
No shooting or uncased firearms. (Sign shot multiple times). Balanced Rock State Park, Idaho
Product will be hot after heating. Mark and Spencer’s Bread Pudding
Caution: Do not swallow contents. Stadium Football
Some assembly required. Unknown brand 500-piece puzzle
KNOW YOUR CAR WARNING LIGHTS
A selection of Yiddish curses (original Yiddish and transliterations are at the website)
180 May you eat chopped liver with onions, shmaltz herring, chicken soup with dumplings, baked carp with horseradish, braised meat with vegetable stew, latkes, tea with lemon, every day – and may you choke on every bite!
And remember, 201 A curse is not a telegram; it doesn’t arrive so fast.
Light Bulb Jokes
How many druids does it take to change a light bulb? 501. 1 to change the bulb, 500 to move the stone circle.
How many evolutionists does it take to change a light bulb? Irrelevant because they will just wait for the light bulb to evolve into a laser.
How many Hindus does it take to change a light bulb? Irrelevant. It will come back as a sparrow.
How many quantum physicists does it take a change a light bulb? The light bulb isn’t broken unless you look at it. So don’t look and it won’t be broken.