Friday, August 23, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tavo 5773–Catalog of Calamities (Redux & Revised 5760)

(to the tune of "Tiptoe thru the Tulips") 

"Tiptoe, through Ki Tavo.
Don't read loudly,
Lest the curses that we
Read will all come true and bring doom.

When you're called to read it,
they won't even call you by your real name
Tiptoe through Ki Tavo’s great gloom.

They’re really a lot
Curses weren’t all that we got
so rush them!

Tiptoe, through Ki Tavo
All the curse words
add up to six-two-six
which equals the words "evil stuff."

It is the custom in many places to read quietly and quickly through the voluminous curses in parashat Ki Tavo. G”d forbid such horrors should befall us. That's us, our modern sensibilities. Avoid anything unpleasant. And for certain don't let the little kinder hear about all this.

Our tradition teaches us that not one single word, not one little jot or tittle in our Torah is there by accident. Yet we avoid this particular set of verses, all 626 words (which, the mystics tell us, is the numerical equivalent of ra-ot, evilness or evil things) like the plagues, these curses, and other unpleasant things. We tiptoe quickly and quietly through Ki Tavo, so we won't wake up the demons waiting to devour us at a moment's notice. Ah, superstition.

Now, I must admit, in all honesty, that the language and imagery of these curses is pretty strong, and some of it is not particularly suitable for young minds. For that matter, some isn't particularly suitable for old minds. Yet we are clearly instructed to diligently teach these laws, our holy Torah, to our children. If we expunge all the awfulness out of the curses, does their message really come through? I sometimes wonder about that.

Only decades separate us from the Shoah, yet already there are voices raised, from both without and within the Jewish community: enough already. (Sometimes, one of those voices is even mine.) There are debates raging as to whether graphic depictions of the horrors of the Shoah are necessary as an educational tool and deterrent.

Well, to both parashat Ki Tavo and to graphic depictions of the horrors of the Shoah I say: bring 'em on. Weaken the words of the Torah and you weaken the strength of the Jewish people. Speak them truthfully, and you save the Jewish people.

Now, I'm not advocating going out and reading (and translating) all 626 words in clear language to young children. But I also don't think it's enough to say something that glosses over the reality like: "well, there's a whole lot of really nasty and bad stuff in there that says what might happen to the Israelites if they don't follow G”d's mitzvot." Somewhere between that and a word for word translation of D'varim 28:53 (you can look it up on your own) is called for. Enough to make anyone hearing these words understand their great import, and the strong warning message they send.

When you read these curses, when you hear them read in the synagogue, they may fill you with revulsion. They may trouble you. Why must we always view that as bad for us?

I think another reason we fear these words is that many of us, perhaps far too many, believe that these calamities have already befallen us for our centuries of being a stubborn, intransigent and disobeying people. Even in our own time, protectors of the faith (like some ridiculously outspoken chief rabbis in Israel) have suggested that the failure of Jews, and especially liberal Jews, to strictly adhere to the rabbinical interpretation of the commandments (a power the rabbis usurped from ha-am, defining “lo bashamayim hi” to include only those as learned as themselves with trickery like the story of the oven at Akhnai) is responsible for the evil things that befall us (or will befall us.)

I believe this is a misinterpretation. If the curses of Ki Tavo seem strong in our own time, imagine how much stronger they would have been to our ancestors. The implication is that some pretty bad stuff is going to happen to you if you don't remain faithful to G”d and follow G”d's commandments. Well yes, some pretty bad stuff has happened to us, but we are still here, and still stubbornly intransigent and disobedient. From the strength of the curses in Ki Tavo, I imagine our fate would have been even worse were we totally without redemptive value! For does not verse 20 say that we will be totally eliminated, wiped out, as it were?

I think Samson Raphael Hirsch got it right when he spoke of how to handle the curses of Ki Tavo. He reminds us that all these curses are conditional, and that this ultimate catastrophe would not come without complete and total failure of every Jew to uphold the commandments-and this, he says, has not yet been the case. To expand upon this interpretation, even Jews who do not follow most of the mitzvot can an do follow some of them, and these righteous acts count. Righteous acts always count, and repentance is always possible.

Perhaps in this lies the value of teaching even these most troubling of verses to our children, to our congregants, to everyone. For if there is to forever be a remnant whose piety sustains the whole of the Jewish people, it is up to all of us to insure it. (Fact of the matter is, I believe the “remnant” is much larger than we think it is, because it does include not only the extremely pious, but those who practice piety of any kind. ) Perhaps one way we can do this is to embrace the difficult words of Ki Tavo, teaching our children that they must be forever on guard to follow G”d's way and G”d's commandments, lest these horrible fates and perhaps even worse ones befall the entire Jewish people, wiping us off the face of the earth. I’m not entirely sure I like or favor this carrot and stick approach, yet I find it is far too easy for liberal Jews (and perhaps for any Jew) to think that the universe doesn’t work this way, that G”d doesn’t mete out punishment for our failures to uphold the commandment – the Shoah was the work of human, not G”d. If I rant against the chief rabbis making these equivalencies, then how can I myself endorse the concept that is at their base?

Negativity and fear, say many, are not good motivators (or, at least, not really healthy ones to use.) I'm not totally convinced of this, I think there are times and places where negative reinforcement can be useful, but I'll accept the basic premise that positive reinforcement is probably a superior methodology. So how can I advocate using the curses of Ki Tavo as a motivator? It is because the fear they motivate, as I see it, is not that of one human fearing for their own self, but rather humans fearing for other humans, for the whole Jewish people, the whole world. And that, chaverim, is love. To love others so much that you fear for their future is a love worthy of our covenant. Could there be a more positive motivator than that?

Could the Shoah have been prevented by the use of only positive reinforcement to convince Hitler and his minions? It’s a big topic, whether war can ever be an instrument of good. Might for right, as our fanciful retellings of the Arthurian legends suggest. Might for right is surely ethically superior to might is right, however is using might for right still a situational, gray concept? On a smaller, more local level, is , corporal punishment, physical punishment for children ethically acceptable? Are negative reinforcers like speeding tickets and other fines ethical? Do they actually work?

Think about it. Admit it. Negative reinforcers do work. You’re exceeding the speed limit and you see a police car by the side of the road. You slow down, don’t you, to avoid the potential penalty? Why, even if you are a driver who typically drives over the speed limit, don’t you adjust your speed relative to the posted speed limit? Despite the common belief, most people don’t really cheat on their taxes – some perhaps motivated by positive morality, other motivated by the fear of an audit. Not all of us ignore walk/don’t walk signs – some motivated by safety an others for fear of a jaywalking ticket. Most of us feed the parking meter not because we feel it’s fair to have to pay to park, but because we fear getting a ticket!

Throughout our lives, in many aspects of our lives, we are motivated to do or not do things by a system of rewards an consequences. Yes, teachers are learning that positive reinforcers can be just as, if not more effective than negative ones, yet negative reinforcement still remains a key part of the system in all but the most radical of human environments.

Now, not all forms of negative reinforcement work. Our penal system is an example of that, as is capital punishment. G”d’s form of negative reinforcement in the Torah doesn’t seem to have proved particularly effective.

I’d like to believe that there is a difference between G”d’s motivations and human motivations when it comes to negative reinforcement, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. For one thing, much human negative reinforcement is motivated by the most positive of desires – that of a civil society. The penal system was meant to be rehabilitative, it just hasn’t really worked that way for many reasons.  For another thing, and here I’m being potentially apostate, we can’t be entirely sure that G”d’s motivations for negative reinforcement are always based on positive desires any more than we can assume that about humans. That’s the price we pay for using ineffability when it comes to explaining G”d. A G”d that, at least according to the Torah, can be swayed by appeals to vanity and public image must be at least suspect in this regard. A G”d that wreaks havoc upon its creations with sometimes seemingly random motivations is suspect.

So here I am, talking myself in circles. Using negative reinforcement might not always be so bad because G”d uses them, sometimes with good motivations. Yet G”d may also use negative reinforcement at times for all the wrong reasons, and clearly humans do both as well.

It all boils down, as it often does, to intent. If my intent in exposing us to the negative reinforcement of the curses in Ki Tavo is to help make a better Judaism, and ultimately a better world, perhaps it is okay. Perhaps.

So I come back to where I ended this musing the first time I wrote it back in 2000, though with some modifications. To love others so much that you fear for their future is a love worthy of our covenant. Could there be a more positive motivator for exposing them to negative reinforcements than that?

Shabbat Shalom,


©  2013 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tavo 5772 - Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 - Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 - If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed...
Ki Tavo 5767 - Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z"l)
Ki Tavo 5763--Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760--Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761--Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762--Al Kol Eileh


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