Two Minutes of Torah | Ki Tavo | Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

“Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it,” said Rabbi Ben Bag Bag of the Torah. A beautiful and nourishing reminder that Torah is deep and full of vast interpretation. It is also a reminder to the student of Torah that when we feel as though we’ve reached a dead end with a particular parsha or idea,  all we need to do is shift our perspective and we will find something else. Despite Rabbi Ben Bag Bag’s advice, I find myself flummoxed by Parsha Ki Tavo this time around.

This parsha contains a famous segment of Torah known as “The Blessings and The Curses.” A section that warns the Israelites that if they do God’s will, follow all of the laws and commandments that Moses sets out for them, then they will be blessed and all will be well with them as they enter into the land. However, should they choose to ignore the covenant, the laws and the rituals, not only will things not go well for them – but they will be cursed. This view is central to what is known as the “Deuteronomistic” view of life; that the covenant is a roadmap, God is central to it, if you follow the map: great, if you don’t: tragedy will befall you…

… and yet we simply know that is not true. Tragedy can befall the best of us. Bad things happen to good people. None of us make it through this life without loss and pain and grief and yes, suffering. In those moments, we may feel as though we are cursed – and this week’s parsha would agree! Which is why I find it so troubling this time around. Next week’s parsha offers a slight reframe, in that we make a choice between blessing and curse, perhaps in how we choose to respond to any given situation, and that we even have a choice. So I grit my teeth this week to make it through this parsha to the other side, where there is comfort and solace and a hopeful reframe. But this week, I shake my head, shrug my shoulders and think, “maybe next year I’ll be able to turn it again and find something new within it.”

Rabbi Callie Schulman

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So I am coming to this parsha fresh from Marlowe’s Faust and Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s tragedy of (political) amorality: a state at the collective and individual level where all capacity, guides or compass for making distinctions between good and evil, truth and lies, corruption and honor have have gone into a meltdown or been burned away in some furnace of human passion, both callous and lustful. The barren tediousness and flattening all-out destruction driven home by poetic magnificence, including salty, raw bawdiness.

I was blown away therefore by the moral, not moralizing, seriousness of KI TAVO, as well as its incantatory style, coming through to me even in English. To this reader, the life-saving, life-giving message here is all about choosing right relation. It’s not about my being really good ( fat chance) or bad, either, but about ordering my relations as a member of community–community with whom I stand, and fall–aright so as to keep me from harming others and myself, irretrievably, by necessity with no “yes, but” or any weasling out as an option.

Primary is the relationship to G-D lived as relations to neighbor: that leaves no room for glorifying one or the other of my passions as gods, and practically requires some boundaries for my possessiveness and greed, sexual and otherwise and some clarity about the fact that others do exist, and may require protective caring. There are no two ways about that, no relativity. Consequences of deviation strike home, if not always in outward signs but with dead surety in heart and soul.

Choice is here, to me, choosing: over and over again. Its binary nature remains while my nature, and that of any community I know, is a lot more like William James’ ” blooming, buzzing confusion.” No matter! I, we, can still turn. Not frivolously counting on mercy, however; instead, being pierced to the heart to good purpose by what’s real and true in justice. That piercing being felt in itself a gift!

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