The Worst Curse Is To Lose All Control

Among the curses for those who break the covenant is the inability to provide for themselves.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8

Most of us, as a rule, do not dwell on the “unpleasant” parts of the Torah. After all, who wants to dwell on unpleasant things any day of the week, let alone on Shabbat, a day where we are supposed to, dare I say, enjoy ourselves a bit. However, after a very optimistic beginning, where the children of Israel imagine bringing their first harvest to the Temple, thanking their Creator for the bounty that has been provided for them, suddenly, the Holy One introduces us to the “downside” of being part of this covenant.

Just as the rewards are great for God’s chosen, the punishments are very severe. What God threatens could ruin even a masochist’s Shabbat. Even more depressing is that a close reading of the curses will show that the Jewish people have endured all the calamities mentioned, only taking solace that they lived to tell the tale.

Toward the end of the curses, the Torah says: “And your life will hang before you, and you will be frightened night and day, and you will not believe in your life” (Deuteronomy 28:66).

The midrash that introduces the Book of Esther, the Pitichta of Esther Rabba, opens with this verse, and explains it the following way:

Midrash Esther Rabba, the Pitichta (Introduction):
and your life will hang before (depend upon) you…” this refers to a person who has grain for one year.
and you will be frightened night and day…” this refers to a person who must buy his flour each day from the miller.
…and you will not believe in your life.” This refers to one who must buy his bread from the baker.

Rabbi Berachya disagreed:
and your life will hang before (depend upon) you…” This refers to one who has grain for three years.
and you will be frightened night and day…” This refers to one who has grain for one year.
…and you will not believe in your life.” This refers to one who must get his grain each day from the miller.

The other rabbis asked: What about the one who must get his bread from the baker? Rabbi Berachya answered, “The Torah did not address the dead.”

Your Midrash Navigator

1. The Hebrew word “Talui” can mean either “hang before” or “depend upon.” Read the verse both ways and describe how it changes the meaning of the verse. If the verse means “depend upon” is this saying something positive or negative?

2. Describe the emotions clarified in this verse. Do things get better or worse? Is being frightened better than not believing in your life?

3. Why does Rabbi Berachya presume that the one who does buy his bread from the baker is already not among the living?

4. What happens to a person whose responsibility for his/her own life is taken from them? According to the midrash, is the ability to provide for ourselves a privilege?

A Word

If you notice, I have translated the first clause in the verse two ways, one which assumes that you are barely able to exist, and the other which assumes that you are still in control of your life. The reason for this ambiguity is that the Hebrew word “Talui” can mean both these things. The rabbis have chosen to interpret the word “talui” as “depend on,” and they seem to think that one who has wheat for a year feels secure. He only becomes terrified when he does not know from where the next day’s wheat will be. And he is only considered in total despair when he is too depressed or incapable of baking his own bread, and thus relies on the baker for his own survival.

Rav Berachya says anxiety kicks in when one watches his annual stock deplete for he is already worried about next year. If he has no wheat stored and is living day to day, this is already a life of complete despair. If, however, someone has given up to the point they no longer bake their own bread, such a person is no longer considered to be alive enough for the Torah to address. This is the ultimate curse, when the will to endure and work toward that end is no longer present. At this stage, Rav Berachya says, the Torah ceases to be interested in us.

Despair is the Torah’s enemy, for in moments of despair the miracle of creation and God’s love are not felt. The beauty of connecting with another is beyond reach and yet, God wishes this upon those who deny the covenant. It is as if the Holy One says, “To deny the source of existence is to deny existence itself. Do not think, your life depends on you even when things are going well.” For once you assume you are the master of all the good in your life, that is when your existence may come into question. It is these curses that have humbled us as a nation, and have made us strong with the knowledge that we will not only endure, but we will also grow, with the help of the Holy One, into a truly holy people, worthy of being declared chosen.

Another question: Why would the Midrash on the Purim story open with such a devastating passage? The rabbis wish to remind us that there is an underlying obscenity in the Purim story. It happened in exile where we were dependent upon a foreign king through whom hidden miracles of elegant timing were performed. Had we been in our own land none of the pain, terror and despair prior to the salvation of Esther and her good uncle would have been necessary. Despair is synonymous with exile.

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

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