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Torah Commentary
Ki Tavo (September 5, 2015)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

YEARS AGO, when I decided to have an adult bat mitzvah, picking a week in which to have the ceremony posed a problem. My birthday is August 6 – not the best time to read from the Torah before an audience of family and friends. Most of my family and friends would be on vacation. Also, the Fifth Avenue Sanctuary and the Beth El Chapel were not yet air-conditioned. So, I put it off a month. That was fine, I thought, until I looked at the Torah portion for that week: Ki Tavo. I must have turned an interesting shade of green. The reason can be seen in the selection above. Mothers eating their babies — oh, dear!

The Sages say, “Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That proved true for me. With a little turning, I found the perfect passage to read — the passage at the beginning regarding the sacrifice of the first fruits. But, I always have felt a little cowardly about my refusal to delve further into the parashah. When I was invited to submit a commentary on this week’s portion, I decided it was time to look more closely at the less pleasant parts of Ki Tavo.

The Book of Deuteronomy contains many laws that the people of Israel are to observe after they cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land. The word “Deuteronomy” has been translated as “Second Teaching,” as many of these laws appear elsewhere in the Torah, especially in Leviticus. But Deuteronomy is much more graphic than Leviticus in spelling out what will happen to the Israelites if they don’t obey the laws. The reason for enumerating these catastrophes could be that, by the time Deuteronomy was written, terrible things — including exile — had happened to the Israelites. I would like to hope that mothers were not forced to eat their babies and that this is a literary device used to scare people into obeying the law.

Scare tactics probably didn’t start with Deuteronomy, and they didn’t end there either. Have you ever read an unexpurgated version of Grimms’ Fairy Tales? I haven’t, but my father was regaled with the pre-Disney versions of many of the stories. He particularly remembered “Strubblepater,” the story of the boy whose hair and nails grew to fantastic lengths so that he terrified little children. The moral of the story: If you don’t practice good personal hygiene, then this will happen to you.

I was a timid child, and I am very grateful that my parents did not choose to terrify me with threats of the dire consequences of misbehaving. Being sensible, college-educated people, they knew that scaring little children is not an ideal way to produce good behavior. They also knew the risks of predicting something that might not happen. We don’t say to children, “If you hold on to that toy and refuse to share it, your hand will fall off,” partly because it is cruel but also because we know it’s not true. If the child continues the bad behavior and nothing terrible happens, then the bad behavior may continue or even get worse. Instead, we try to emphasize that sharing toys is the right thing to do.

But what happens if the child refuses to share the toy, and the other child is crying and screaming and can’t be diverted to another toy? Don’t tell me you’ve never been tempted to say, “If you let Jimmy play with your toy, I will buy you the video game you’ve been begging for.” Rewarding bad behavior doesn’t seem such a smart move, even if it would produce shalom beit, peace in the home. But it’s 5:30 PM; you’ve had a rough day. Jimmy is crying, Johnny is stubbornly grasping his toy, and you’re trapped.

Deuteronomy was written during rough times as well. Scholars suggest that both the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel (c. 722 BCE) and the destruction of Judah (586 BCE), followed by the exile of its citizens to Babylon, took place while Deuteronomy was being written. Many of the hardships described in its pages probably took place in real time. Did mothers eat their babies? Who knows!

The trouble with saying, “Be good and good things will happen to you” is that we know it isn’t true, at least not in the literal sense. You don’t win the lottery because you did a good deed. But the word “mitzvah” doesn’t mean “good deed,” even though it so often is translated wrongly that way. It means “commandment.” Doing the right thing isn’t a choice. We are commanded to behave in a just and compassionate way to ensure a civil society.

Before we go to Temple on Yom Kippur to pray for God’s forgiveness, we are told that we must first ask forgiveness of those we may have wronged. And, no, that doesn’t mean we automatically will get rich or famous. But it does help us to sleep better at night.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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