How bad can it get? If we are to take Torah at its word, pretty bad.
בַּבֹּ֤קֶר תֹּאמַר֙ מִֽי־יִתֵּ֣ן עֶ֔רֶב וּבָעֶ֥רֶב תֹּאמַ֖ר מִֽי־יִתֵּ֣ן בֹּ֑קֶר מִפַּ֤חַד לְבָֽבְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּפְחָ֔ד וּמִמַּרְאֵ֥ה עֵינֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה׃
In the morning you will say “Who will give (us back last) evening?” and in the evening you will say “Who will give (us back last) morning, from the fear in your hearts that you will fear, and from the sights in your eyes that you will see.
Things, which are already bad, will get progressively worse, and each moment is so bad that one will long for the “less bad” that existed only moments ago. Perhaps the worst part of this is that the verse suggests that it is not only the harsh realities that will afflict us, but our own imaginations – the dread of even worse afflictions that we conjure up in our dreams. The sights we see in our eyes in dreams can be just as real to us as those we see in the cold harsh light of day, and can cause us continuing dread and despondence.
We do not even need the scourge of the myriad curses described in extensive detail over 43 verses (Deut. 28:15-68) to experience the harsh, trapping reality of complete despondence described in verse 67. When we do something that we know is wrong, more often than not (I would like to believe,) our own conscience tortures us by day and by night. With each passing moment that we do not seek to right our wrong, or make amends for it, our soul may continue to afflict and torture itself.
In fact, it’s possible that all the curses elaborated in those 43 verses are just that – not a description of what will surely happen, but what we ourselves (or our ancestors) imagine might happen if we fail to observe the commandments. It’s all one big, long, scary nightmare, an imaginative horror flick, a pastiche assembled by the human psyche in an attempt to fight the internal battle on the side of tov versus ra, good versus bad. It’s horror as a cautionary tale – like the monsters parents have used over the millennia to frighten their children into better behavior.
The idea of a Deity coming up with this long description of horrors that might befall the Israelites troubles me, if there’s even a hint that these could actually happen. The idea that we conjured these up from our own fears ought to be a little more comforting, but somehow it, too, is not. In addition, being the avid reader of Science Fiction that I am, there’s the additional thought that this might be a form of aversion therapy that could be twisted and adapted into something much more sinister. The theme of using someone’s worst fears as a mind weapon against them has seen many iterations in literature – perhaps this is the first (or just an early example. There are parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh that might qualify as earlier uses of this literary device.)
For many humans, perhaps just the fear of having one’s worst nightmares come true is enough to help them continually strive to be better persons. Would that this were not so-that desire for blessings would be a better motivator than fear of curses.)The Torah gives us carrot and stick, heavy on the stick. Surely the blessings enumerated in verses 3-14 ought to be enough to insure our obedience to the commandments. However there being only 11 verses of blessings and 43 of curses suggests that aversion therapy was the strategy of choice here.
For many, the approaching Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe are fraught with a heavy-handed negative approach to behavior modification. The threat of a Day of Judgment is held over our heads. That’s not much different than holding these curses over our heads. There’s a difference, however. In this parasha, our nightmares are made real,making the threat seem quite real. The Day of Judgment is somewhat different. There is no clear outcome in Judaism for one found lacking on the Day of Judgment. There is no “hell” per se. There is the shadowy world of “sheol” but it’s not at all clear that this is a place reserved for only the wicked. Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Job both suggest that good and evil people alike wind up in sheol.
Later on, we Jews added the concept of gehinnom. In some interpretations, truly righteous souls, upon death, proceed directly to Olam Haba/Gan Eden, whereas most of us go to gehinnom after death for twelve months, where we are given the chance to purify ourselves, and atone for our sins. (The sages disagree on whether this purification is achieved through punishment or simple self-reflection.) After the twelve months of purification one ascends to Gan Eden, a sort of Jewish heaven where the dead exist in a life as pleasant as that of Adam and Eve before their “fall.” Yes, Virginia, even in Judaism there are those who think of what happened to Adam and Eve as “the fall.” How this heavenly Gan Eden differs from Olam Haba isn’t exactly clear. Two Jews, twelve opinions.
It is not at all clear what happens to those who, at the end of their twelve months in gehinnom, remain truly evil. They may ascend anyway-though I’m not sure any sage or scholar ever said that. The Rambam, one of my favorite targets, foolishy – and I dare say that about the great Maimonides – suggests in his Mishneh Torah that the wicked receive eternal damnation and punishment. (Really? Are we both reading the same Torah?) Other sages suggest the truly wicked are simply destroyed after their twelve months in gehinnom.
There’s another difference, as well. We have some sort of Judgment Day each year. Rosh Hashanah is also yom hadin, a day when we all stand in judgment befoe G”d. The praxis of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur gives us a chance to atone for our sins, wipe the slate clean, and start the new year fresh. Why fear a great and final Day of Judgment when we already go through one annually?
The consequence of being less than perfect, perhaps even being evil, is, annually, another chance. That’s not a philosophy that utilizes fear and intimidation, is it?
Jewish “Hell”,” according to some, might be the sort of place where the poor but righteous person who aspired all his or her life to be able to spend more time in study of Torah but was not able to do so actually gets to do so, and with the great sages and ancestors, whereas the rich but evil person who always had the resources to study Torah but never did winds up doing just that, all the time, as well. In that sort of scenario, nobody really loses, do they?
Perhaps Torah, in this parasha, spends so much time on aversion therapy just to teach us that it really isn’t the best way. It may have been a stroke of brilliance that Torah contains so many things that trouble us, shock us, frighten us. That gives us the motivation, after having been assured that Torah is ours to understand and interpret, to develop a religion that tries to focus more on the positive. A religion that goes out of its way to reject harsh punishments. A religion that creates a space to allow human beings to engage in self-reflection, and an opportunity to rededicate themselves, annually, to being better, improved, or, if those terms trouble you, simply changed persons. A religion that seeks to reinterpret the words of Deuteronomy 28:67 in a positive manner.
In the morning you will say “Who will give (us back last) evening?” and in the evening you will say “Who will give (us back last) morning,” from the fear in your hearts that you will fear, and from the sights in your eyes that you will see.
The fear that the night before was so wonderful that the morning could never be as wonderful as the previous night was, and the fear that the evening might not be as wonderful as the morning. That’s a fear I can live with. Almost. If I have to live with fear, that is. It may enough just to be thankful for each evening and morning that I get to live in my life.
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Ki Tavo 5771 – Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 – If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed…
Ki Tavo 5767 – Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh
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