Ki Tavo - on gifts, on guilt, and on great writing

This parshah begins by outlining how one must bring a basket of first fruits to the Priest to give thanks for the work of God in freeing the people. Connected to the holiday of Shavuot, a thanksgiving festival at harvest time, the idea of giving thanks makes sense as a preface to this section which is all about the rewards for obeying God and the punishments for failing to do so. A lovely tradition on Shavuot is to give a fruit basket to a neighbour or friend. This is in thanksgiving not only for the fruits of the season and the farmers/growers who cultivate them, but also for the gifts of friendship. Gratitude is good for us – it not only humbles us but can enrich our lives. Sometimes we have days when it is hard to see what is positive in our lives. If we force ourselves to pay attention to that for which we’re grateful, we remind ourselves to put our challenges or problems (even when significant) in context.

This parshah gives blessings – if the people follow the law and believe in God then they will be blessed with fertility, abundance, and dominion over themselves and the land. If not, however, terrible things will happen. We find curses that come in various forms. It is important to put such curses in a historical frame. This section of Deuteronomy was clearly written after the experience of exile and the influence of Babylonian/Assyrian rulers and cultures. But, of course, the piece is being written as though prior to the Israelites even entering the land. The curses that describe a future possibility (this will happen if…), are actually describing the past and present. Many of the curses, such as living under foreign rulers whose languages the Israelites do not speak (28.47-57), are much like some of the prophetic literature we find in the book of Jeremiah, for example, that blames exile and defeat on the people’s immorality and lack of belief. Note morality here really is defined as obedience – if the people do as their told good things will happen, and if they don’t then they bring bad things upon themselves. If only our actions existed in a cause/effect schema that was this simple! We know that people are afflicted with hunger, disease, infertility, and other problems outlined in the curses of this parshah, independent of how ethical and good-hearted they are. In fact, one of the reasons so many Humanistic Jews turn away from the idea of God is that we see how good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, and we let go of the idea that we live according to any kind of divine plan or divine justice. Luckily, we are much more interested in morality than obedience; we do not define “goodness” as doing what one is told, but rather trying to effect positive change according to the way we rationally understand the world. The blessings and curses of this section neither excite nor terrify us, but this does not mean that they are useless either.

We typically read the bible as a literary document, but acknowledge that it can teach us about history as well. We do not take literally the idea that Moses delivered this speech to the people. But we do understand something about history from the text. Firstly, this portion resembles Assyrian vassal treaties which similarly outlines punishments for disobedience. Scholars find that our text was highly influenced by such treaties, and thus we have a record of how our ancestors dealt with and incorporated ideas and texts of their surrounding culture. Another interesting historical piece comes from a slippage in the text. We are to believe that Moses has delivered everything orally, with the exception of the tablets he brought down at Sinai. But there is a moment here where his character says, “if you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching that are written in this book….” (28.58). At this point in the narrative, Moses has written nothing down and there has been no mention of a “book” of laws. This type of anachronistic detail reveals that later writers attributed their writing to earlier times, which gives us a fascinating look at why they wanted to write this text, these stories and laws, for the people of their own time, but not the time of the supposed events. Looking at the Torah as history is dubious – it gives us clues to our history but, as we see above, rarely offers a straight and factual historical record. What it does offer is powerful storytelling. Few commentaries spend enough time and attention on the language of this parshah. While some find the curses to be a warning, and other a sign of a vengeful God, I simply admire the strength and force of the writing itself. Here are some examples of curses that are incredibly well-written: “the stranger in your midst shall rise above you higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower: he shall be your creditor, but you shall not be his; he shall be the head and you the tail” (28.43-44). What metaphor! What parallelism! Another example describes the desperation and hunger that will come under this foreign domination: “And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter, the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears, she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate traits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns” (28.56-57). Here we see that the natural order of things is reversed. The imagery is so powerful in its macabre and disturbing conjurations. This is meant to inspire awe (and fear), and it does. Too many commentators, worried about the theological implications of a God who curses his supposedly “chosen people,” and blames their misfortunes on them when he is supposed to be all-powerful, ignore the language and its beauty. Humanistic Jews, not reliant on the idea of an all-powerful God, can dispense with the theological somersaults and enjoy the literary value of this and other parashot. This section of Deuteronomy, screams for literary analysis. It's such a shame when Jews overlook the literary value of our central texts. Who needs gothic literature when you have parashat Ki Tavo?