G”d could take a lesson from the Rambam (Maimonides.) The Rambam extrapolates, from the Torah verse “you shall not curse the deaf” (Lev. 13:14) that Torah was teaching us that the one who curses is a much a concern as the one who is cursed. For some, the Rambam explains, the mere act of verbal cursing will provide the necessary catharsis to prevent the one cursing from taking any physical act of revenge, however, cursing is just as likely to incite the curser further to commit to pursuing a course of physical vengeance or retribution against another party, only after which the curser feels ready to move on.
Given this, we have to ask ourselves why our parasha, Ki Tavo, is chock full of curses, including a series of ritualistic curses to be pronounced by the Levites when the people enter the promised land. If we follow the Rambam’s logic, then those pronouncing the curses might be tempted to be overly zealous in their pursuit of identifying and dealing with those who transgress and invoke the curse.
This of course brings up the very important conditional nature of the curses that appear in this parasha. These are not curses in the form of imprecations simply uttered by one wishing G”d to inflict punishment on another. The curses are warnings of what will befall those who do not follow G”d’s instructions and keep G”d’s ways.
There’s no clear direction from G”d to Moses and the elders to give this list of blessings and curses to the people. D’varim is, after all, one long discourse by Moses. So it would be unfair to indict G”d for threatening curses upon the people (thus, by the Rambam’s logic, making G”d more prone to continue to seek vengeance on the people.) Yet we can take Moses to task for his usage of curses as threats or warnings. While Moses has certainly seen the wrathful side of G”d, Moses has also seen the ever-loving side of G”d. The fact that Moses instructs the people with a list of blessings and curses makes that clear. Do right by G”d and be blessed, do wrong by G”d and be cursed.
While the blessings here are promises, the curses here are warnings. It’s Moses’ way of saying “choose wisely.”
Nevertheless it still troubles me that the threat of curses is used as an instrument to keep the people in line. One has to wonder if the Jewish people might have been less recalcitrant in their transgressions of G”d’s instructions if only a positive message had been used. (Human nature being what it is, there’s little evidence that a positive message would have been more successful than negative reinforcement, but there’s no clear evidence it would have been any worse. The threats of curses didn’t seem to have the desired effect. Or did they? It can easily be argued that the Jewish people might have been even worse in their transgressions without the threat of the curses looming over their heads. We’ll never know.)
The correctness of the Rambam’s view is clear in our own time. Surely I need not enumerate the countless situations in which mere verbal cursing led to much more drastic physical results. If it’s catharsis we seek, perhaps we can get it with verbal expressions that aren’t curses. I know many who try and avoid saying things like “G”d damn it” or “G”d damn you” and seek benign-er substitutes. In fact, one might make the case that allowing us to utter normally inappropriate language, like those seven words you used to not be able to say on television, in the place of curses (which, by definition, seek some sort of supernatural bad consequence befall someone or something else) may provide better catharsis, and be less likely to tempt us to take actual physical vengeance.
Here’s the thing about curses. Often the utterance of a curse turns out worse for the person who utters it. They can wind up consumed by guilt, even if nothing bad ever befalls the person they cursed. We do feel bad when we curse others, as we should. (Which would lead me to ask if Moses and the Levites should feel bad for uttering curses if it were not for the fact that these being conditional and only potential curses mitigates the situation. Or does it? History is replete with conditional curses. Does making a curse conditional make it alright to curse? Is it ever moral to wish for the Deity to cause harm to befall another? In fact, is a prayer for victory over another, even in a sports event, almost the moral equivalent of asking for a curse upon the other party?
Moses and the Levites are enumerating some pretty bad outcomes in their conditional curses. Some of them are disturbingly graphic in nature. It’s no wonder it was decided to soften the blow by providing such a positive haftarah reading from Isaiah.
Yes, there are times when we need to be made to feel low, in order that we might appreciate the normals and the highs. The combination of Torah reading and haftarah reading for Ki Tavo does strike a nice balance. However, I still wish we weren’t subjected to hearing these curses annually – even if it has become traditional to rush through them quickly and quietly.
The very concept of curses is one that could easily be utilized by the Hitchins’ and Gladwells of the world as yet another argument against religion and belief in G”d. If there’s no Deity to call upon to ask for evil to befall another, there might be no cursing, right? I wonder. Even if every human being were a rationalist, realistic, and fully scientifically knowledgeable about the nature of the universe, we might still call upon the universe’s randomness to result in harm to another.
There is yet another side to curses we haven’t explored. The efficacy of curses is dependent on the willingness of both the utterer and object to believe in their efficacy. (Yes, that’s a circular argument, but it works.) Moses surely believed that curses were efficacious and thus posed a viable and credible deterrent when used as a threat to the people against transgression of the G”ds laws. Curses used by the builders of Egyptian tombs were dependent on the willingness of potential grave robbers to fear them. It seems they have only proven truly efficacious in the movies (though again it is hard to know how many potential tomb robbers never went through with a robbery as a result of learning about a curse.)
The Rambam argues that cursing was an especially important prohibition and the Torah is strongly concerned about it because the Torah takes into account the beliefs and superstitions of the people (even when they might be erroneous) in determining how to instruct the people in the law. Again, following the logic here, we can perhaps justify the Torah’s inclusion of all the curses in the parasha, not because the Torah (or G”d) actually believe (or will cause) such things to pass, but rather because they believe the people believe it just might, and that ought to be enough to make them take the warnings seriously. Talk about preying on people’s superstitions.
The end result of my own wrestling with this is to make me even more upset and angry at the inclusion of these curses. Yes, you can argue that G”d was treating the Jews as the relative children they were at the time, and speaking in a language and with metaphors they could understand. Yet, if that is the case, since so much of the Torah was written with that in mind, does that not give credence to the view that the Torah is not intended to be eternal and unchanging, at least in matters of interpretation as opposed to actual text? Rabbinic tradition has already altered the Jewish view of these blessings and curses from what was probably their raw original understanding. The rabbis cloak their revised interpretations in the mantle of oral Torah and rabbinic authority (as in the story of the oven of Akhnai.) I’ve no need to cloak mine.
These curses are here because at the time the text was written (however that happened) the text’s creator(s) believed that curses as threat would be effective. I do not believe they are effective any longer, and I am not even certain what we can learn from them. My covenant with G”d as a Jew is no longer dependent on what this parasha teaches. I will not be compelled to follow the mitzvot under threat or duress.If there were parts of the Torah that I were comfortable with expurgating completely, this parasha would be one of them. (I could do without large portions of D’varim entirely…)
Yet this is not like me. I like the challenge that Torah presents – I sometimes revel in that challenge. So why do I shrink from this one? That is the question that I shall be asking myself this Shabbat. What will be your question?
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha
Ki Tavo 5769 – If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed…
Ki Tavo 5767 – Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z”l)
Ki Tavo 5763–Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760–Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761–Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762–Al Kol Eileh