“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

How to turn Torah’s troubling curses into relevant, modern-day advice

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

At this point near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites stand at the very threshold of the Promised Land. Moses and the elders of the community instruct their people to create a special dedication ceremony when they have crossed the Jordan River.

Part of that ceremony involves the public proclamation of blessings and curses, the consequences that will befall the 12 Tribes depending on their fidelity to the laws and rules of the covenant. These pronouncements occur on Mount Gerizim and Mount Arbel.

As the people gather on and around the mountains, some of the curses that they hear are quite gruesome. If the Israelites disobey the covenant, “The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish.” (Deuteronomy 28:22)

“Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the Earth, with none to frighten them off. The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars and itch, from which you shall never recover.” (Deut. 28:26-27)

“The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness and dismay. You shall grope at noon as the blind grope in the dark; you shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help.” (Deut. 28:28-29)

These are pretty harsh punishments, to say the least.

To many of us, these curses in Ki Tavo seem disturbing and hideous, a reflection of an ancient mindset that directly linked our actions with divine reward and punishment.

We can reinterpret the ideas of reward and punishment, of blessings and curses, so that they are no longer irrelevant.

Most of us today do not believe in a God who rewards us for meritorious behavior, or who punishes us for our misdeeds. We know all too well that life is much more complicated than that — that bad things do sometimes happen to good people, that the wicked do sometimes prosper.

Similarly, many Jews in our time have doubts about the idea of petitionary prayer, the notion that — if we are “deserving” — God will answer our prayers and fulfill our personal requests.

While there are some people who do pray for health, wealth, love, good grades or even hitting a home run, it is dubious as to how many really believe they will receive a direct, positive response to their petitions.

It is hard for me to fathom a God who works in such a mechanistic way, like a cosmic Pez-dispenser. And I think it is perhaps best to simply reject the idea that God has any connection to whatever reward or punishment, whatever good or bad, we experience in our lives.

And yet, it is still possible that our behavior can affect our destiny, and it makes sense that prayer can make a difference in our lives.

Our actions have consequences, and even if God does not punish or reward us in a direct way, we can and often do punish or reward ourselves. When we act with compassion and virtue, when we pay it forward, we can reap riches down the road — an immense sense of satisfaction.

Likewise, when we act toward others poorly or in an injurious way, we often harm ourselves in the process: We damage our reputations, our standing in the community, the willingness of others to be in a relationship with us, whether personal or professional.

And prayer is not only about asking for things. It is also about expressing gratitude, showing praise, conveying a sense of awe and reverence. Prayer can connect us with God, but it can also put us in touch with important aspects of ourselves, our characters and even our souls.

In these ways, we can reinterpret the ideas of reward and punishment, of blessings and curses, so that they no longer seem irrelevant. We can take ancient concepts and reimagine them in new ways that we find meaningful and applicable to our lives.

When we do that, we breathe new life into Judaism, and we keep it alive for the next generation.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."