Thursday, 03 Sep 2020

Written by David-Yehuda Stern

Parashat Ki Tavo: God’s Punishments Reclaimed

In this D’var Torah I am going to talk about God. I am aware that for many readers this may not be the most popular or comfortable of topics to consider. In truth, I feel the same way; though God is at the heart of Judaism, I am usually quite happy to see God confined to the weekly Torah reading and liturgy. Beyond this, I tend to avoid any attempt at actually talking about God.  By contrast, in the orthodox community in which I grew up we often spoke about God, though rarely did the concept appear reflected in my own lived experiences.

The origins of this dissonance can perhaps be found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. Part of our Parashah describes the rewards that will be showered upon the Israelites as a nation, if they are faithful and obedient to God:

Now, if you obey your God Adonai, to observe faithfully all the divine commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, your God Adonai will set you high above all the nations of the earth (Deut. 28:1).

Likewise, we also learn of the curses that will befall them should they stray from the Godly path:

Adonai will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evil doing in forsaking Me (Deut. 28:20).

The text goes on to describe, in great detail, how an Israelite society that betrays God will experience horrific and painful destruction eventually leading them to be wiped out altogether. This chapter, as well as the one preceding it, provides a list of prohibited acts from which all peoples must abstain in order to avoid such a terrible fate. These include: accepting bribes, purposefully misdirecting the blind, and subverting the rights of the stranger, fatherless, and the widow. In many ways the instructions found in our portion are quite straightforward; obey God and we will flourish as a nation; disobey God and we will be obliterated. Importantly both our actions and our fate are bound together so that rewards and punishments are dealt out to the entire people of Israel. Indeed, the text forms part of the Mosaic covenant to the Israelites as a nation, and is not addressed to each of us individually.  Leaving aside the complexities of applying the Mosaic covenant in the modern multicultural era, how are we to resolve the basic contradiction that some nations do act in immoral ways and yet still do prosper?

In all nations, we see governments transgressing some of the most basic, moral principles as outlined in Ki Tavo. Tragically, animals are mistreated through legal though abhorrent practices, parents and carers are insulted through neglect in social care systems, and labour practices secretly allow one human to conspire against another, or indeed one nation against another. Although these nations may not act justly, they do not seem to suffer the awful fates that our portion describes. Similarly, we see those peoples that strive to lead a good and righteous life, struck down in ways that bear striking similarities to these curses. Where are their blessings?

The problem I am outlining is not a new one, rather it is the ongoing struggle to reconcile the interventionist God of the Torah with the seemingly passive God of today. Of course, it is possible to dismiss the question out of hand. We might say that the Torah and the God within are human creations and therefore, at least when it comes to God’s actions, can be ignored. Likewise, we might contend that while God was once intricately involved in the lives of our ancestors, the divine has since rescinded that role and no longer acts in the modern world. Both positions (broadly) accept that the transgressions listed within the Torah should form part of our moral compass and legal code, but dismiss the consequences as mere hyperbole.

Yet, following either of the above justifications through to their logical conclusion, renders a significant portion of our narrative – the story which is at the heart of the Jewish people – obsolete. Whilst Biblical descriptions of God may seem foreign to us, this does not mean that God’s actions, as described in the Torah, do not contain a divine message and deliver a holy meaning. Indeed, for Judaism to really, positively impact our own lives, as well as that of the surrounding world, we need to understand the direct relationship between Biblical transgressions, curses and blessings.

A nation who constantly mistreats animals is cursed with pestilence whilst one who respects nature will see blessed, “the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock” (Deut. 28:4). In the past century, our constant mistreatment of animals (and the land upon which they live and graze) continues to damage the food chain upon which so much of nature and our own sustenance rely. I am not the first to point out that there is something positively Biblical in the effects of climate change on our world. (My wife suggests reading David Wallace-Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth for a frightening depiction.)

A nation who constantly subverts the rights of the stranger, fatherless, and the widow is cursed to see far-off nations usurp them, “swooping down like an eagle – a nation whose language you do not understand, a ruthless nation that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy” (Deut. 28:49-50). Those nations who respect each and every member of their society, embracing diversity, will see themselves established as, “God’s holy people” with, “all the peoples of the earth standing in awe of you” (Deut. 28:10). Today, each country, through the ethical treatment of its visitors, residents and citizens, can be as a holy people. Those nations that fail in this task are inevitably doomed to collapse.

As the above examples make clear, the Biblical God who is active in the affairs of humankind metes out punishments that are fitting of a nations’ crimes. They are calibrated to be instructional: carried within them are the reasons God institutes Their laws in the first place. One can’t help but wonder whether they were selected to teach humankind the effect of their actions, both positive and negative, on the human and the natural world.

God should never feel unmentionable and must not be confined solely to the realm of metaphor or consigned to overstatement. Indeed, it is the whole of the Torah – especially the parts that make us most uncomfortable – that often have something to teach us, that enable us to grow.

Shabbat shalom.

David-Yehuda Stern



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.