Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
- The Israelites are instructed to express their gratitude to God for their bountiful harvests and freedom from slavery by tithing ten percent of their crops for the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 26)
- The people are told to display on large stones God’s commandments for all to see. (Deuteronomy 27:1–8)
- The Levites are to proclaim curses upon those who violate God’s commandments. (Deuteronomy 27:15–26)
- The Israelites are told that if they obey God’s mitzvot (commandments) faithfully, they will receive every blessing imaginable. They are also told that if do not fulfill their b’rit (covenant) with God, many curses will descend upon them. (Deuteronomy 28:1–69)
- Moses reminds the Israelites of the miracles they witnessed in the wilderness and commands them to observe the terms of the covenant so that they may succeed in all that they undertake. (Deuteronomy 29:1–8)
Now, if you obey Adonai your God to observe faithfully all God’s commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, Adonai your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect if you will but heed the word of Adonai your God…. But if you do not obey Adonai your God to observe faithfully all God’s commandments and laws that I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect (Deuteronomy 28:1–2; 15).
Why does the list of curses follow immediately on the heels of the list of blessings?
How are the blessings and curses related to each other?
Are the blessings and curses really polar opposites? Might they be opposite ends of the same continuum?
By the Way…
Thereupon Balak said to Balaam, “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them!” In reply, Balaam said to Balak, “But I told you: Whatever Adonai says, that I must do.” Then Balak said to Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps God will deem it right that you damn them for me there.”… Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased God to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens but turned his face toward the wilderness. As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him (Numbers 23:25; 24:1–2).
The Baal Shem Tov was enraptured by his intuition that evil concealed a seed of the good; yet the good and the holy might at times be pregnant with unpremeditated evil.… The Baal Shem Tov taught that evil was a temporary manifestation of the as-yet-hidden good; it had a subsidiary function, acting as a kind of footstool to the good. His concern was to liberate the good within the evil.… The Baal Shem Tov stressed the necessity for transforming “evil” into “good,” the unholy into the holy. To him, then, “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15) meant “Convert evil into good” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1995, p. 40).
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves (Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, 1984, p. 135).
Daniel Pearl…dedicated his life to bringing joy and understanding to the world…. The Daniel Pearl Foundation was formed…by Danny’s family and friends…in memory of journalist Daniel Pearl to further the ideals that inspired Daniel’s life and work. The foundation’s mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music, and innovative communications (www.danielpearl.com).
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped while tracking down a lead on Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber suspect. He was later murdered in Pakistan. Ann Curry, the cohost of Today, asked [Daniel Pearl’s parents],“What is it that you want to say about your son that takes us beyond seeing him as just a victim?.… How…have you been able to find this way of finding good in what horrible malice was done against your son?” Mrs. Pearl [Daniel Pearl’s mother, Ruth] said, “This–this was a survival technique. We couldn’t survive if we didn’t have some kind of goal, some kind of legacy for Danny to continue his work, even after his death” (Today, NBC, June 25, 2002).
In Numbers 23:25, Balak sought to have the wicked sorcerer Balaam curse the Israelites so that they would not pose a threat to his people. How was Balaam’s intended curse turned into a blessing? Did Balaam turn the curse around on his own, or did he receive help?
Do you agree with the Baal Shem Tov that evil can actually be converted into good?
According to Frankl, what kind of inner strength do you think is needed to turn a personal tragedy into a triumph? How would you access that strength? What would the personal cost be to you if you couldn’t?
What enabled the Pearl family to create a blessing in response to the tragedy that befell them?
At times the pain that we encounter in our lives is overwhelming and seems insurmountable. In such moments, the philosophy of Heschel, the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, the wisdom of Frankl, and the courage of the Pearl family may seem beyond our grasp. All these teachers chose to find the relationship between curses and blessings, and we are left wondering how they were able to make that choice.
One way to understand the interconnection between curses and blessings can be found at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Moses teaches the Israelites the importance of expressing gratitude for all that God has given them: They are free, they are blessed with plenty to eat, and they have good leadership. Moses teaches the Israelites about tithing, explaining that ten percent of their crops should be given to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. When performed with a generous spirit and a grateful heart, their actions will bring them blessings from God.
In order to find gratitude during challenging life situations, we have to look beyond ourselves and, at the same time, deep within ourselves. Doing that requires a tremendous amount of inner strength, which we can draw from the support of our community and God’s loving-kindness. In combination, our friends and our faith can enable us to transcend the challenge and find a blessing embedded within a curse–and perhaps even convert a curse into a blessing.
Just as metal is molded and shaped by fire, so are we shaped and transformed by the fire in our lives. This realization enables us to see that curses and blessings are opposite ends of the same continuum, both part of the eternal cycle of life. Our fate lies in the choices we make. Balak chose to listen to God. The Baal Shem Tov chose to convert evil into good. When Frankl found himself impotent to change his environment, he chose to change himself instead. The Pearl family chose to pass Daniel’s teachings onto others when he was no longer able to teach them himself.
My fervent prayer for all of us this Shabbat is that we choose to realize the blessings in the world and in our lives.
Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.
Pronounced: ah-doe-NYE, Origin: Hebrew, a name for God.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.