Biblical scholarship identifies the structure of the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy with the structure of ancient near eastern covenants or treaties between [human] lords and vassals. These treaties would begin with a history of the relationship between the two entities in question, would then lay out the responsibilities of each of the parties involved and would continue to outlining the blessings the vassal will receive if he lives up to these responsibilities and the curses that the lord [again human] will rain down upon him should the vassal not live up to his responsibilities.
Understanding this ancient tradition helps us to approach the horrific set of curses threatened in Ki Tavo with some equanimity . . . but it is still a hard text to read and a harder text to ponder.
Rabbi Jessica Marshall, a Hillel rabbi, focusses our understanding of these blessings and curses on the nature of the covenant forged at Sinai (www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/kitavo_ajws.shtml). She writes:
"Within the narrative of blessings and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, God sets out expectations for how we should behave, making it clear that this is not a covenant of faith, but one of deeds."
Rabbi Marshall cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this context: "It is in the deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of their ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others…The deed is the test, the trial, and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense." (God in Search of Man)
There is something empowering about Rabbi Heschel's teaching. It is true . . . many of us have experienced the pain of random illness, tragic death, destructive natural phenomena . . . that we humans are too often at the mercy of forces that seem to follow no rules, are subject to no moral valence.
But Rabbi Heschel comes to teach us that there are situations in which our deeds, the large and small decisions we make regarding our actions, that can often determine whether we bestow, or experience curse, or whether we bestow, or experience, blessing.
Rabbi Heschel's teaching also instructs us on a kind of self-awareness that is often difficult for us to internalize: that our words and actions matter, have affect, carry consequence.
I had a conversation today that intensely brought home to me, not just Rabbi Heschel's "What we perform may be slight, but the aftermath is immense" . . . but also what we fail to perform may be slight and the aftermath of the omission may be immense . . . for ourselves or for others.
A first reading of the curses of Ki Tavo may drive us into a corner of helplessness and a victim mentality . . . but the deeper reading of this passages drives us back into the world, inspired and determined to turn ourselves into sources of blessing rather than sources of curse.