Ki Tavo: Learn Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo 

The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover. . . .  The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay.   (Devarim/ Deuteronomy


I’m back!

Friends, I apologize for the long break in providing a weekly commentary. I meant to only take a few weeks off in late July and early August, but one thing turned into another, and I never caught up from time off and unexpected situations at the synagogue.

Enough kvetching, let’s look at this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which begins with a famous commandment to bring our first-fruits to the ancient Temple, in gratitude for our blessings, but ends with a terrible series of curses put upon the people if they do not follow God and Torah. One commentary I read earlier this week suggests that this section of curses is related inversely to the commandment found earlier to love God (cf. Devarim 6.) That is, if we don’t love God, we should at least fear God- and according this theory, the horrors of the curses, including disaster, starvation, disease and even cannibalism, are meant to shock us into realization of the consequences of choosing the wrong path.

It’s possible that this was the plain meaning of these verses in historical context, but exploring of the Bible reveals that the link between suffering and sin is not always so clear. The book of Job makes this most plain, but reading the historical works of the Bible, like Judges, Samuel, and Kings, one realizes that the Biblical authors were perfectly well aware that lots of suffering happens because humans are imperfect beings living in a dangerous world. People start fights and wars, get sick and die, are filled with passion and rage, and it isn’t always the plan of God that these things happen.

In our age, we are even more oriented towards an understanding that bad things can happen for entirely natural reasons; the unfolding of nature and natural laws doesn’t necessarily reflect the particulars of Divine Will. People suffer, whether they have sinned or not, and the best we can do is be prepared for life’s unpredictable unfolding.

That, to me, is the meaning of these terrible curses- disaster, drought and death- that appear in Ki Tavo.  We are never really prepared for suffering, yet it it should be obvious that at any minute, our lives could be utterly disrupted by conditions beyond our control. The Northeast was battered by a hurricane just a few weeks ago; and entire towns were flooded and damaged- who ever thinks that their home might be swept away?

In anticipation of the Days of Awe, the Torah throws something humbling at us: the awareness that our comforts and security are temporary at best. There is no external circumstance which is utterly reliable: our bodies fail, our buildings fall down, our fields are flooded or burned depending on the weather. What we can choose is our communal response to suffering: if we have choose the path of commitment to God and each other, perhaps the experience can be mitigated, just enough. We go forth into the world humbled by the knowledge that we are not God, but called upon to do holy work nevertheless. That’s why the Torah throws such a shocker at us: it asks us to imagine our worst nightmares, precisely so that we call forth a deeper humanity, a greater depth of compassion and spirituality, to be our foundation in times of trouble and our glory in times of peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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