Thursday, 26 Aug 2021

Written by Eleanor Davis

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Before the phrase became a popular sign on the bedroom doors of messy teenagers, it appeared over the gates of Hell in one of the most famous books of the past thousand years.  At the opening of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri is just “halfway along our life’s path” (though he didn’t quite make it to the full threescore and ten before he died 700 years ago this August) when he loses his way amid dark, unfamiliar territory occupied by threatening beasts.  So begins a journey that will take Dante to Paradise, but only after touring Hell and Purgatory with the shade of the Roman poet Virgil as his guide.

Dante’s work is a literary masterpiece, not least because his descriptions of the torments of Hell and Purgatory are terrifyingly vivid.  Those with a guilty conscience are pursued endlessly by stinging hornets and those who committed violence are immersed in a river of boiling blood; those who were angry in life walk in thick smoke so nasty that their eyes cannot remain open, while those who were proud are bowed down by rocks on their back.  Inventively unpleasant to read, Dante’s measure-for-measure punishments are very much in keeping with those encountered in other tours of Hell in Jewish and Christian apocalypses from late antiquity up to Dante’s own time.  These texts, like Dante’s, usually involve a person being shown around Hell, granted special access to learn how humans who arrive in Hell by more normal routes are punished for their earthly sins, sometimes in truly gruesome ways.

Yet perhaps the ancestor of them all is in Parashat Ki Tavo (and the similar section in Bechukkotai), where punishment for sin does not wait until after death: Moses tells the people, in great detail, of the dire fate that they will suffer if they choose to disobey God’s commandments once they enter the land.  “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” might also be a necessary warning on entering this section.  The potential blessings for obedience fit into just fourteen verses, but it takes all of Deuteronomy 28:15-68 to convey the full weight of the curses: a long portion so full of horror that it is traditionally read quickly and quietly in synagogue.

Returning to read these curses this year, many are just a little too close to our current reality for comfort.  They predict suffering “that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy…  It shall shut you up in all your towns throughout your land…  The Eternal will inflict extraordinary plagues upon you and your offspring, HoHstrange and lasting plagues, malignant and chronic diseases…  and they shall cling to you” (Deuteronomy 28:51, 53, 60-61).  Even if you don’t subscribe to the theology of direct reward and punishment that underlies it, this makes tough reading after over a year of living with a pandemic: an extraordinary disease that has physically shut up towns and taken a huge toll on young and old, in different ways, and still clings to us.

Torah also notes a psychological element: “You shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest.  The Eternal will give you an anguished heart and eyes that pine and a despondent spirit.  The life you face shall be precarious… because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see” (Deuteronomy 28:66-68).  This too may sound discomfitingly familiar to many of us, for whom the uncertainties and fears of the pandemic have been as real a plague as Covid-19’s physical symptoms.  It’s easy to find cause for further anguish too, for any newspaper or news feed today contains enough to read like a modern-day version of Deuteronomy’s list.  Coronavirus sits alongside ecological catastrophe and terrorism, natural disasters and oppressive regimes; following the news can sometimes feel like taking a daily tour of Hell.  So how can we continue to read all this without becoming overwhelmed or despondent?

Perhaps we might remember that Dante does not wander alone in Hell and Purgatory: he is guided through by Virgil, with Beatrice taking over to lead him along into Paradise.  So too Jewish tradition has ensured that we do not read Deuteronomy 28 alone, but accompanied by one of the series of Haftarot of Consolation.  We read the bad news of Torah’s curses, but we also balance it with the prophet’s hopeful vision of the future, a time when “your gates shall always stay open… and your days of mourning shall be ended” (Isaiah 60:11, 20), to remind us not to become stuck in despair.

Reading the news today, we might need something similar to keep us from despondency: a vision of how good the world could be and people whose examples illuminate a potential path through these difficult times.  We may also need these as we approach the Days of Awe, for our attempts at cheshbon hanefesh, conducting an accounting of our soul, can easily create a list of failings that tempts us to see ourselves as worthy of the punishments that Torah and Dante describe.  Yet this season does not ask us to abandon ourselves to self-castigation, only to acknowledge and atone for where we have gone wrong.

Perhaps this year we might consider accompanying our confession of sins with admission of the good deeds we have done, or at least with reminders of those whose actions inspire us to hope that we too may find a path forward, towards a future that does not replicate the mistakes of our past.  We might even rewrite Dante’s sign to hang over the gates of the Days of Awe, “Enter here, all ye who have abandoned hope,” to remind us that being awe-ful need not be awful.  May we all emerge into 5782 with a renewed vision of the potential beauty of the future, prepared to accompany one another along the path of working to ensure that we too may reach Paradise.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!

Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

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