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Ki Tavo: The Fear of God

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

This week's portion, though it begins with encouragement and promise, contains one of the grimmest passages in the Bible.  The Israelites learn that keeping the commandments and following the path prescribed for them by God will lead to comprehensive blessing: 

Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.
Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your soil, and the fruit of your
                      animals—the issue of your cattle and the progeny of your sheep.
Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.
                                                                                     —Deuteronomy 28:3–6

Failure to do so, inevitably, will lead to precisely the opposite: "Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country."  Verses 16–19 repeat verses 3–6 exactly, but with "cursed" instead of "blessed" (and with the "womb" and "basket" verses switched around). 

The comprehensive blessing is followed by a paragraph of nine verses expanding on the general blessings.  For example, verse 11 reiterates the "fruit" phrases of verse 4 and declares that the blessing will take place "on the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to you."  But the curses are spelled out in 50 verses of gruesome detail, culminating with the assurance, "You will offer yourselves to your enemies as slaves, but no one will buy you" (28:68).  This passage is read in synagogues in an undertone, rather than being chanted out loud.  It is that difficult to listen to.

There is one aspect of this curse, though, that demands we listen more carefully to something we would rather not hear.  It is an expansion of the awful pronouncement of verse 18, "Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb":

"You shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the Lord your God has given you, because of the constriction of the siege with which your enemies will besiege you.  The most tender and delicate man among you will begrudge giving his own brother, and even his beloved wife, and even his remaining children, a taste of the flesh of the children that he is eating, because that is all he has left to eat. . . . The most tender and delicate woman among you, so tender and delicate that she has never ventured to set foot on the ground, will begrudge giving her beloved husband and her son and her daughter even the afterbirth that comes out from between her legs, let alone the children to which she gives birth—for, lacking anything else, she will eat them in secret. . . .
                                                                                  —Deuteronomy 28:53–57

Do more down-to-earth people eat their children with greater equanimity?  No.  Saying "You shall eat the fruit of your womb" would be quite horrible enough.  Yet specifying that "tender and delicate" people are doing this highlights an essential aspect of the punishment.  To see how, let's look at a happier part of Deuteronomy and its application in rabbinic literature.

Deuteronomy 15:8 specifies that one must assist the needy by giving them enough to supply what they lack.  Rashi (France, 1040-1105) comments that the obligation is comprehensive—even if what this particular poor man lacks is a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him, you must give him enough to pay for them.  The Talmud (tractate Ketubot, 67b) tells us that Hillel himself did just this for a well-born man who had fallen on evil times.  Once, when a slave to run before the man could not be found, Hillel himself ran before him for three miles.

A horse and runner can't possibly be considered a material necessity, or Deuteronomy would insist that they be given to everyone.  Rather, for that particular man, they were a psychological necessity. But the blessings, like the curses, are as much psychological as they are material: "The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom" (28:13). 

So it is for psychological reasons that the curse specifies that it is a woman so dainty she has never put a foot on the floor who ends up eating her child.  For the purpose of these verses is not to threaten the Israelites with hunger—it is to threaten them with horror.  Deuteronomy wants the Israelites to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might" (6:5), but it calls upon them to fear God as well as to love Him.  If they love God, they will naturally follow God's path.  If they cannot be persuaded to love Him, Deuteronomy sees only one other option: to put the fear of God into them.

This is a chapter both of blessings and of curses, so its message is two-fold:  Fail to fear the Lord, and you will crawl; so love Him, and walk tall.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.



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