Kee Tavo 5781-2021: A Contemporary Interpretation of an Ancient Reproof
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Aug 23, 2021
(updated and revised from Kee Tavo 5762-2002)
This coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, is one of two parashiot in the Torah that are known as the תּוֹכָחָה —Toh’cha’cha, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people. The Toh’cha’cha contains the threat of ominous Divine afflictions and terrifying calamities that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to heed G-d’s directions.
According to many commentators, the first Toh’cha’cha, which is found in parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26), predicts the destruction of the First Temple, while the prophecies of the second Toh’cha’cha of parashat Kee Tavo were fulfilled with the destruction of the Second Temple.
The Toh’cha’cha always begins with blessings, extensive blessings from G-d, who waits patiently for His people to repent. Only then, are we informed of the ominous threats and the foreboding evil that awaits Israel if they fail to heed G-d’s word.
When the Toh’cha’cha is read in the synagogue, most contemporary listeners assume that the words are intended for ancient people, since they were spoken to the Israelites of old. But that is hardly true. The cogent words, have profound contemporary meaning for today’s Jews as well, as we will attempt to show.
It is the style of the Torah to always open with the positive. In Deuteronomy 28:1, we read: וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, And, it shall come to pass, if you will listen diligently to the voice of the L-rd, your G-d, to observe and do all His commandments, which I commanded you this day, that the L-rd, your G-d will set you high above all the nations of the earth.
G-d promises that His divine blessings will be showered upon the people of Israel. The Jewish people will be blessed both in the city and blessed in the field. Says Moses to Israel in the name of G-d: The food of your body will be blessed, as will the food of your land. The food of your cattle, and the increase of your flock will be blessed, as well as your basket and your kneading trough. You will be blessed when you come in, and when you go out. Your enemies, who rise up against you, will be defeated, and although they approach you from a single direction, they will flee from before you seven ways. There will be blessings in the barns, and blessings upon everything you touch. The land will be blessed. And G-d will make you a Holy people. As a result, all the people on earth will see that the name of G-d has been called upon you, and they will fear you.
G-d’s magnanimous blessings of Israel continue. You will be overabundant for good, for children, for cattle, for the fruit of the land. G-d will open His good treasure–the heavens, and give you rain in its proper season and bless the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations, but never borrow. G-d will make you the head, and not the tail. You will be above always, and never beneath–if only you heed the commandments of G-d, to observe and do them.
The blessings conclude and, in Deuteronomy 28:15, the message turns ominous. וְהָיָה אִם לֹא תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, And it shall come to pass, if you fail to listen to the voice of the Lord, your G-d, to observe and do all His commandments and His statutes that I command you this day, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. You will be cursed in the city, and cursed in the field, cursed in the basket, and cursed in your kneading trough. The fruit of your body will be cursed, as well as the fruit of your land, and the increase of your flock. You’ll be cursed when you go in and cursed when you go out. A pestilence will cling to you and will consume you from off the land that G-d gives you to possess it.
The Torah continues, warning the Jewish people that they will be smitten with all sorts of diseases, inflammations, fiery heat and drought. You’ll be smitten by your enemies, and you’ll be a horror to the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses will be food unto the fowl of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away. You’ll be exiled to a land whose language you don’t understand, and you’ll become an astonishment, a proverb and a byword among the people there.
The stranger that is in your midst will rise up above you and you’ll be lower and lower. He’ll lend to you, but you won’t lend to him. He’ll be the head, and you’ll be the tail. And you will be left few in number. Why? Because you did not listen to the voice of the L-rd, your G-d.
The L-rd will scatter you among all peoples from one end of the earth even to the other, and you’ll serve other gods. In the morning you will say, “I wish it were evening,” and in the evening you will say, “I wish it were morning,” for the fear of your heart that will always preoccupy you.
Finally, in Deuteronomy 28:69, the Torah concludes, “These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which He made with them in Choreb.”
It all sounds exceedingly frightening, and it surely is. But it’s even more frightening when we look closely at the details of these ancient words and realize how readily they apply to contemporary reality.
Deuteronomy 28:16: “Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the field.” There will be extensive urban decay. Metropolitan centers will begin to crumble, and if you attempt to escape to the suburbs, you will encounter vast environmental blight there as well. Verse 17: “Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.” Countries that previously produced unlimited supplies of food, will uncharacteristically, be attacked by blight and drought and will be unable to produce enough supplies even for their own needs, let alone, have sufficient supplies for export. Financial and stock markets will tank, industries will crumble, corruption will abound.
Verse 18: “Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the fruit of your land.” Your children will be seduced by violence and drugs. Teenage crime will skyrocket. Adolescence will be a lost phase of childhood, and record numbers of youngsters will die of opioid overdoses and random gun violence committed by hordes of lawless gangs.
Verse 19: ”Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.” People become so disoriented that they will not know whether they’re coming-or-going. They will innocently leave their homes to go shopping, to go to work or to school, only to be confronted by homicidal mass murderers, and violent psychopaths. Verse 20: “The L-rd will send upon you a curse and discomfiture, and rebuke.” Society will be on the verge of anarchy. Crime rates, which had been reduced, will rise to the bad-old-days levels. More than two million Americans will be locked up in prisons, the highest rate of any advanced country. In some neighborhoods, adult males will hardly be seen, because so many have been murdered or incarcerated. At the same time, violent criminals will be released without bail.
Verse 22: “G-d will smite you with consumption, with fever and with inflammation, and with drought.” There will be epidemics of new diseases such as AIDS and COVID-19, that will not respond to conventional treatments. Verse 23: “And your heaven that is over your head, shall be brass, and the earth that is under you shall be iron.” Global warming will wreak havoc on the environment. Indifferent citizens and governments will continue to emit heavy amounts of carbon, and other emissions that deplete the ozone layer. They will contaminate the environment with pesticides, PCBs, and other pollutants. Our air, oceans and sea life will be contaminated with dangerous levels of microscopic plastic particles. Polluted land areas will become common. Verse 24: “The L-rd will make the rain of your land powder and dust.” There will be radon contamination, acid rain and unprecedented heat and drought. The once-fertile lands of the “Bread basket” regions will turn into powder, millions of fertile acres and beautiful forests will be consumed by the extraordinary heat and uncontrolled wildfires.
Verse 29: “And you shall grope at noon, as a blind gropes in darkness.” People will be groping, looking for purpose in life. Even the rich, will not know what to do with their time. Large numbers of people will be lonely and depressed and become dependent on pills and an army of therapists. “You shall not make your ways prosperous, and you shall be only oppressed and robbed always, and there shall be none to save you.” Rising crime will fill citizens with fear. Security guards will be stationed throughout formerly safe communities. No one will pay attention any longer to ringing burglar alarms. Criminals will hack your computers and bank accounts. Companies will be frozen by ransomware. Home security systems will become more and more sophisticated, people will move to gated communities for additional protection. Looters will attack the high-end shopping malls, claiming the property as theirs for injustices done to them in the past. Personal valuables will have to be kept so secured, that wearing or using them will prove terribly inconvenient.
Verse 30: “You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her.” Sexual standards will collapse, infidelity will be rampant. Divorce rates will significantly decline because people will marry later, and two-parent families will become increasingly uncommon. “You’ll build a house and you shall not dwell therein, you’ll plant a vineyard and you shall not use the fruit thereof.” The economy will founder. Personal bankruptcy and business dissolution will become de rigueur. Your property will be foreclosed. Verse 31: “Your ox shall be slain before your eyes.” Your SUVs, your Lexuses, your luxury vehicles will be stolen, at times even hijacked with their drivers, or taken away by the bill collectors.
Perhaps, most ominous of all, verse 41: “You shall beget sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity.” Rampant assimilation–intermarriage will become the norm for the Jewish people.
And why does this all happen? Verse 47: תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב, מֵרֹב כֹּל. Because you did not serve the L-rd, your G-d with joyfulness and with gladness of heart, by reason of abundance of all things! As absurd as it seems, prosperity is often as great a challenge as is poverty. As Jews succeed materially, they increasingly walk away from G-d. They forget to say, “Thank You,” to the Ultimate Provider.
Verse 49: “The L-rd will bring a nation against you from far, from the end of the earth as the vulture swoops down, a nation whose tongue you shall not understand, a nation of fierce countenance that did not regard the person of the old nor show favor to the young.” There’ll be a lack of communication, not only between the conqueror and the conquered, but even between generations. An enormous “generation gap” will develop, parents will be unable to speak to children and children will be unable to speak to parents. The result will be, verse 53: “And you shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the L-rd, thy G-d has given you.” Not only will there be lack of communication, not only will there be absentee parents and children “nuking” frozen meals for dinner 6 or 7 nights a week. Not only will nannies raise the children and children be virtually unaware of their biological parents, but there will be rampant child abuse and child exploitation. Parents will be replaced by (mostly-violent) video games, and iPad baby sitters.
As we read Deuteronomy 28, it becomes increasingly impossible not to see the evils of contemporary society not only predicted, but actually fulfilled.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! These evils should never happen, and we can forestall it. We can prevent these ominous events by merely acknowledging G-d and expressing our gratitude for G-d’s abundant blessings. We need to put prosperity in its proper perspective and make certain that our most precious possessions, our children, are properly educated in the ways of G-d. We need to open our homes generously, and conduct our lives with justice, and fulfill our responsibilities with loving-kindness. We need to repent.
We need to feel that these days of Elul are a Divine gift, an antidote to the Toh’cha’cha, the reproof, and a healing for the curses and calamities. We need not suffer. G-d has given us the formula to counteract the suffering. Therefore, G-d begs us, beseeches us, Deuteronomy 30:19, to “choose life.” וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים, Choose life!
There’s no more propitious time to “choose life” than now! Choose life! Choose spiritual abundance! Choose peace! Choose health! Choose happiness! Choose G-d.
May you be blessed.
As we read the תּוֹכָחָה--“Toh’cha’cha,” G-d’s reproof of the people of Israel for their sins in parashat Kee Tavo, it is impossible not to recognize the evils of contemporary society predicted and fulfilled. G-d begs His people to “choose life.” If we indeed choose life, the tragic predictions of the Torah should never occur. In fact, we can forestall almost all evil by properly educating ourselves and our children to conduct our lives properly, fulfilling our responsibilities to others and to the environment, with genuine loving-kindness.