Joel Cohen’s Question:
After G d, through the voice of Moses, tells us the many blessings we will receive if we follow G d’s commands, He tells us the bad news – and it’s really bad – if we’re sinners. You will encounter horrible plagues (fever and swelling lesions), attrition, confusion and worry in every undertaking. Your carcasses will be food for every bird of prey. You will grope at noontime as a blind man gropes in the darkness. You will betroth a woman, but another man will lie with her. You will eat the fruit of your womb. You will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maidservants, but there will be no buyer. And this is just a taste of what will befall us—enumerating the rest here would be too painful.
So, consider this: as a parent you need to discipline your children. You tell them the rewards that will be theirs if they adhere to your wishes. But can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, any parent of sane mind ever telling his/her children this parade of horrors if they are disobedient?
G d is our Father, our Parent. How can we understand this form of remonstration by G d of His children? And maybe more important, why would G d Almighty believe that this means of disciplining children would actually work? Because, truth is, it doesn’t seem to have succeeded over the course of our history.
Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:
Joel, it is interesting to compare the warnings that are given by G d at the end of Leviticus and the warnings given here by Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. While they both include harsh penalties for the rejection of G d and His mitzvot, the warnings given by Moses are far longer and more descriptive than the warnings given by G d. And, in this distinction perhaps lies the answer to your question. You agree that warnings of punishment for lack of good behavior are in place in any parent-child relationship and therefore appropriate in the relationship between G d and the Jewish people which on Rosh Hashanah we use as the paradigmatic father-son relationship. Yet, in Leviticus, these warnings are straightforward and do not get overly dramatic.
Moses, on the other hand, at the end of his life is faced with a serious dilemma. How is he to relate G d’s warnings and to insure that the people continue to listen to G d even after Moses has passed away? Thus he added some drama and painted a graphic picture of the punishments that will befall the people if they do not heed the word of G d. This is Moses’ role at the end of his life to guarantee the future adherence to G d’s word.
Nachmanides argues that the shorter admonition at the end of Leviticus relates to the first exile that lasted seventy years, while the longer admonition at the end of Deuteronomy relates to the present exile following the destruction of the Second Temple that continues to this day. Accordingly, he explains, the warnings are not merely a scare tactic on behalf of G d and Moses, they are an actual description of the persecutions that the Jews will experience in the future. (For more on this, see Forewarning.) We can only read this long admonition and consider the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people throughout history.
Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:
Growing up in South Africa, an Anglo-Saxon country, I – along with all my friends – was keenly aware of the cane that the principal owned. This cane was prominently displayed behind his desk, a symbol of what could happen if we misbehaved. (Even then there were rules regulating when the principal could and could not use this power. Subsequently the use of corporal punishment was suspended.) We knew that there would be consequences to our actions. While he most certainly could have, I cannot recall our principal ever using the cane. But its mere placement and existence were deterrents enough for us from engaging in too much mischief.
Every single action has a reaction, a positive action is met with a positive reaction, and a negative action is met with, G d forbid, a negative reaction. Whether we physically experience this effect or it has “only” a spiritual effect—the reaction exists. Kabbalah explains that G d originally envisaged creating the world with gevurah (judgment; discipline) but in order for the world to be able to flourish, G d introduced chesed (kindness). Because we are not all perfect beings, a.k.a. angels, G d needed to create that balance of kindness and judgment so that there would be able to be continuity.
G d chose two locations in the Torah to remind us of the consequences of our actions: one in Bechukotai (my bar mitzvah parshah) and the other in this week’s reading. The Torah scroll contains an average of 248 columns—a mere five of which are devoted to the “curses.”
While they seem scary, they too are necessary: they serve as a reminder about the consequences. A reminder that we are a chosen people and that with the position comes a special responsibility, and if that trust is breached there are consequences.Yet even these “curses” or “consequences” cannot be taken merely at face value, and they contain deep spiritual significance.
The universe is like a large painting, if we stand to close to the painting we may get caught up in the details of the painting and miss the larger picture. This is illustrated by a story about Rabbi Akiva recounted in the Talmud: Rabbi Akiva traveled with a candle, a rooster, and a donkey: the candle so he could study Torah at night, the rooster—his alarm clock—to wake him up to study Torah, and finally the donkey to carry his possessions. Rabbi Akiva once stopped at a city. He tried to get lodging at an inn but there was no room available. Rabbi Akiva went from house to house but nobody would let him in.
Rabbi Akiva walked into the neighboring woods and set up camp. All of a sudden, a strong wind kicked up and extinguished the candle. A few moments later, a ferocious lion emerged from behind his tent and killed his donkey. What was left? The rooster. A ravenous cat appeared and devoured it. Rabbi Akiva was completely stuck. The next morning, Rabbi Akiva discovered that a band of robbers had attacked the town during the night, mercilessly killing the people and stealing their money. The robbers escaped into the forest. If they had seen the candle, or heard the noise of the rooster and donkey, Rabbi Akiva would have met the same fate as the townspeople. G d had saved his life by extinguishing his candle and taking his animals.
So to with the Torah’s admonitions. According to mystical teachings, they in fact contain deep blessings, as is evident by this story, as told by Yanki Tauber (The Positive Curse): Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi himself served as the reader of the weekly Torah portion in his synagogue. One year, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was out of town for the Shabbat that the section of Ki Tavo is read. In the Rebbe’s absence, another person did the reading.
Ki Tavo contains the Rebuke, a harsh description of the calamities destined to befall the Jewish people should they forsake the commandments of the Torah. That week, Rabbi DovBer (son and successor of Rabbi Schneur Zalman), a pre-bar-mitzvah child at the time, was so greatly affected by the curses of the Rebuke that he developed a heart ailment. Three weeks later, when Yom Kippur came round, he was still so week that his father was hesitant to allow him to fast.
When the young DovBer was asked, “don’t you hear the Rebuke every year?”, he replied: “When father reads, one does not hear curses.”
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