Litany of Curses and Abundant Blessings

Ki Tavo Drash by Stan Satz

A smattering of blessings but a heap of curses (all 98 of them) are specifically elaborated upon in Chapter 28 of Ki Tavo. First, Moses proclaims that if the Israelites rejoice in God’s covenant and abide by the commandments in the Torah, then they will luxuriate (physically and spiritually) in the land of milk and honey. Their blessings include abundant prosperity and supremacy over their foreign enemies.

Then comes the most terrifying litany of curses in the Hebrew Bible, an exhaustive array of horrors that will afflict the Israelites and their future generations if they disobey God, if they forsake the mosaic code: their Promised Land will be a pestilent wasteland, and they themselves will be ravaged by every weapon in God’s arsenal, a reign of terror beginning with excruciatingly debilitating and disfiguring diseases, madness and blindness; fathers will cannibalize their children, Israel will be hewn to bits by pagan nations, and the wretched remnant will suffer beggarly exile. Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, is ferociously fervent in cataloging the punishment awaiting the stiff-necked Israelites who betray God. Nonetheless, there is still hope for redemption—as long as the chosen people eventually rededicate themselves to God.

Throughout the Torah, we witness the same motif of a prodigal Israel squandering its inheritance, then suffering multitudinous afflictions for such disobedience, then repenting, and then receiving once again God’s bounty. Sounds familiar, no? It is one of the most compelling themes emblazoned in the Hebrew Bible.

I believe it is significant that the consequences of Israel’s initial disaffection and ultimate reconciliation with God occur in this life, not the next one, whereas other religions so often focus on humanity’s fate in the afterlife—whether it be delighting in the crystalline palaces and translucent rivers of heaven as described in the Book of Revelation and so often elaborated upon and ornately embroidered by Billy Graham, or whether it be wallowing in the ghastliness of hell in which some of the damned (as in Dante’s medieval masterpiece The Inferno) are flogged, flayed, racked, dismembered, disemboweled, hacked, pierced, torn, impaled, blinded, throttled, suffocated, cramped, and crushed, while their bodies are penetrated by maggots, toads, and venomous snakes. In eighteenth century America, a notoriously frightening Puritan sermon (Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,) envisions the Almighty dangling reprobates over the jaws of hell as if they were nothing more than spiders.

Judaism is fundamentally different. Our ancient religious heritage rarely even mentions what will happen to us after death. In scripture and in rabbinic commentary, we are constantly reminded that we are not only responsible for what we do, but that we will live or our descendants will live to see the repercussions of our actions—be they pure or corrupt, self-enhancing or self-destructive.

Because so many of the Israelites who made the exodus from Egypt defied and defiled God, except for Caleb and Joshua, they are not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Note that this haven is not heaven or hell—it is not metaphorical or metaphysical—it is geographical.

But even if the Chosen People faithfully adhere to the covenant, there is another stipulation. They must do so joyfully. Painstakingly abiding by the letter of the law (with its attendant mitzvahs) is not enough. There must be passion; there must be spontaneous hallelujahs. This enthusiasm should be displayed not just at prayer, but in daily life. Otherwise, the Israelites will still be forced to endure the onslaught of the specified curses: “Because you would not serve the Eternal your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything….God will put an iron yoke upon your neck until you are wiped out.”(Verse 47).

I have chosen as the epitome of such unscripted joy and gladness an entertaining anecdote from Jewish folklore: Rabbi Levi Yitzhak who lived in northern Ukraine was a charismatic Chassidic leader of 18th century Europe. He recited and sang Shabbat prayers with dramatic gesticulations. According to his followers, in moments of ecstasy, he would fling his Kiddush cup up in the air and dance with uninhibited abandon on top of the table.

For years, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak longed to share a Shabbat meal with Rabbi Baruch, another Chassidic sage. There was, however, one difficulty: Rabbi Baruch was noted for his strict decorum; and any wildness on the part of Rabbi Yitzhak would not be welcome.

Then one day, Rabbi Yitzhak made a bargain with Rabbi Baruch. If invited to a Shabbat meal, he promised to restrain himself. In fact, he would remain absolutely silent throughout the meal except for the obligatory amens. Satisfied with these terms, Rabbi Baruch invited Rabbi Yitzhak and other noted guests to his house for the next Shabbat evening supper.

When the appointed time arrived, all was calm until Reb Baruch’s servant asked Reb Yitzhak whether he preferred his fish sweet or sour: “Fish?! Do I like fish?! I love God!!” he shouted and joyfully tossed the fish plate high into the air. To everyone’s horror, the plate landed on Reb Baruch’s tallit, completely staining it. What was Reb Baruch’s response? Was it dismay, disgust, fearful wrath? No.

Reb Baruch simply uttered the following words: “These stains are holy: they were caused by a Jew who really loves God.” Afterwards, Reb Baruch refused to have the stains removed because of the boisterous reverence that they signified. And that treasured, blemished tallit was passed down through the generations!

When my wife and I were in Jerusalem, we once saw an ultra-orthodox Jew at the edge of the Western Wall flailing his hands up and down and twisting his body as he passionately proclaimed his devotion to God. At the time, I was a little taken aback by what I thought was mere showiness, cheap histrionics. But later on, when I had seen so many of the congregants at the Great Jerusalem Synagogue almost robotically mutter from their siddurs—in between indiscriminate schmoozing—I began to better appreciate the overtly pious man at the outskirts of the Kotel.

Even under the accursed conditions in the Nazi death camps, according to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, one can still lovingly praise God for the little blessings that Hashem so graciously provided: a crust of bread to be shared with fellow inmates, or a glimmer of light that seeps through the cell block.

And what about us? Will we be blessed or cursed? That depends on whether we betray our Judaic heritage or heartily embrace it. And the first step in the process of self-assessment and self-renewal is to see the glass, or should I say the Kiddish cup, not as half-empty (oy) but as half-full (joy). Amen.

Shabbat Times