Busy busy week. Hope you have a chance to enjoy.
Ki Tavo is a Torah portion with a lot to say about the people of Israel and what they must do when they cross the Jordan into the land. Moses is coming to the end of his life and finishing his career by continuing the final teaching. Moses is said to know the failings of the people that will come in the future and the way they will be distant from God. But he seems to try to inoculate them from the most severe retribution of God with a series of laws and functional rituals including writing down the Torah on stone.
Moses gave the Israelites a chilling prophecy of the horrors that would come upon them if they were to reject God and the Torah. This section is called the Tochacha, the Admonition. It reads:
"If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching that are written in this book, to reverence this honored and awesome Name, the Ruler your God, God will inflict extraordinary plagues upon you and your offspring, strange and lasting plagues, malignant and chronic diseases." Deuteronomy 28:58-59
That is some scary stuff. Moses, speaking for God, is giving a real serious threat. This threat has reverberated through history in the form of people seeing many illnesses, both global and personal, as divine punishment. Even after we began to understand that reasons behind plagues, diseases and disasters, people have looked to God as the cause. One must look no further than the news in the midst of catastrophe to hear voices that blame victims of pain and disease for moral failings.
In my youth is was HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In high school I began to read about the disease, which was mainly seen in the promiscuous homosexual community. Almost immediately there were those preaching and teaching it was God’s punishment on people who committed what they saw as a sin. However they couldn’t explain the rise of the disease in children, hemophiliacs and the equal opportunity of being inflicted in Sub-Saharan Africa. If HIV was God’s punishment, it was not nearly targeted enough to the right people. However, what this thinking did so as I grew from high school to college, was create a barrier to knowledge among those who were vulnerable to the biology of the disease, but felt immune because in their minds they were “living right”. As an advocate for AIDS education, I was stone walled not by fear of discussing sexuality, but by those who felt it was a disease of the sinful. This was true through a good deal of the 1980s and saw shades of it even later. What is interesting is this week, a pornographic actress tested positive for HIV. An industry that regularly tests, place a moratorium on filming until all the actors are tested. Right away the chorus of God’s retribution on the industry started.
So the question is, is this how God operates? Clearly in the Torah God sends plagues and death on the people for disobedience. In fact God seems to kill some Israelites for fairly minor infractions. But in today’s world we look at disease and disaster and don’t think first of God’s wrath as the ancients seemed to do. We don’t see God as a vindictive character who kills entire communities, or demands the destruction of a people for moving away from God. We see the lines of Torah in the context of the day.
The troubling nature of these, and many lines of the Torah, should not cause us to reject its teaching but to find a way to make the Torah our own. We can strive to get beyond these words that sound so uncomfortable on our modern tongues and look to the entirety of the scroll for how it can fit into our lives. Even here in Ki Tavo, Moses is hoping that with such harsh language the people of Israel, free of his leadership and their direct connection to God, can still use the Torah to do what it is intended. To guide the people to build a just society. One were people operated for the betterment of each other and took to heart the idea that they are responsible for the earth, themselves and their neighbor.
The Torah was written in a time and at a place that was so very different from ours. The people were seeking to understand God in the world, just as many of us are doing today. The ancient ancestors did a lot of the heavy lifting and left as a starting place, but that is what it is, a starting place for us. It is our turn to make meaning out of the words and how they speak to us today. Try not to stumble over the lines that you are unable to rectify in our modern world. Acknowledge them. Think about why they are there. And continue to turn it. We can find new things in each generation, and we owe it to our ancestors to continue that tradition.