Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
This week’s portion of Ki Tavo contains a long litany of curses (over 50 verses — I drew the short straw and will be reading them). You can see the Tochecha, as it’s called, in Deuteronomy 28. When you read the curses carefully, they seem less like warnings and more like a compilation of our greatest fears and nightmares, sort of a Deuteronomic dystopia. With dark dystopias all the rage these days, thanks to series like “The Hunger Games,” I looked more carefully at these curses to see which ones would resonate most with our popular culture.
You’ve got your basic Zika virus curse, in verse 21:
“The LORD will make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until He have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest in to possess it.”
In verse 19, you’ve got your basic TSA airport security check:
“Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out.”
Verse 28 gives us our 24-hour cable news channels:
“The LORD will smite thee with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment of heart.”
Verses 22-24 presage climate change, plus a bonus punishment of mildew and ongoing construction outside your apartment window:
“The LORD will smite thee with consumption, and with fever, and with inflammation, and with fiery heat, and with drought, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The LORD will make the rain of thy land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.”
And with verse 43, we have what some analysts call the underlying nightmare propelling this entire political cycle:
“The stranger that is in the midst of thee shall mount up above thee higher and higher; and thou shalt come down lower and lower.”
Of course for many people, that last nightmare is actually a hopeful vision, because all of us were at one time strangers here and American history is replete with the rise of immigrant generations. As we read elsewhere in the Torah (Leviticus 19),
“The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
So perhaps this litany is more about consequences than curses, and the greatest curse is not what fear imagines, but the fear itself.