Divrei Torah BlogsKi Tavo

Ki Tavo 5766 –Curses

Getting cursed is no fun.

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, contains a section called the tochecha, the rebuke.  The rebuke starts out saying if you don’t follow God’s laws – “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.”  There are a few particularly harsh words of rebuke: “The Lord shall send upon you cursing, confusion, and failure, in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed, and until you perish quickly; because of the wickedness of your doings, by which you have forsaken me.  The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave to you, until he has consumed you from off the land, which you are entering to possess.  The Lord shall strike you with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue you until you perish.”

This section is so ugly that traditionally the Torah reader recites them in a low voice, and no one wants to have that aliyah.

I was thinking of that rebuke in this week’s Torah reading a few days ago when I found myself being cursed in a very public forum – on the web site of the Jerusalem Post!  And what I find particularly astounding is I wasn’t being cursed for criticizing Israel – quite to the contrary, a bunch of very right wing people were cursing me for praising Israel and the IDF.  Go figure.

It all started with an op-ed piece I wrote that appeared in the Jerusalem Post on September 4th.  Click Here to read the article.

The article was a response to a statement by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the United States, which said that Israel should revise the Code of Ethics under which the Israeli Defense Forces fight.  In particular I disagreed with a statement by their Executive Director, Rabbi Basil Herring, who said “Our traditional sensibilities tell us that it is not right to risk the lives of our soldiers to minimize civilian deaths on the other side.”  I brought in several sources from our tradition which say we are obligated to minimize civilian deaths on the other side, even if it does carry some risk to our soldiers.

Any sense of morality tells you that one Israeli soldier’s life is not worth the lives of some very large number, say 10,000 innocent civilians.  And at the same time no one is saying you should sacrifice 10,000 Jewish soldiers to save one innocent civilian.  So the truth is, it really comes down to an argument over how much risk is acceptable to save how many lives.

In my article I did not say Israel did anything wrong; to the contrary, I praised Israel and the IDF for following the Code of Ethics, and I said that nothing needed to be changed.  The article I was responding to said Israel was being forced to adopt a “Christian morality.”  In my article I drew heavily on sources from the Torah and the Talmud to justify why the Code of Ethics is solidly Jewish morality.

The Jerusalem Post, like many newspapers these days, has a “talkback” feature to their online edition.  The talkback feature allows readers to write in comments on articles published online.  It’s not edited like “letters to the editor.”  Since they don’t have to pay for the space, they let anyone say more or less anything they want unless it’s threatening or obscene.  After my article was published, the talkback for it seemed to become a magnet for the incoherent.

Reading what some of these individuals wrote was a painful and unpleasant experience for me.  So you may think I’m crazy, because I’m going to stand here and read some of them to you.  Not because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’m not, but because I believe there is a lesson to be learned from all this invective.  With the pressure of having to come up with a D’var Torah every week, I’ve learned there is a lot of value in making lemonade when someone hands you a bunch lemons.  So here is this week’s crop of lemons.

The negative responses came in a couple of different categories.  First were the ones that were straight invective – nothing more than unsophisticated name calling, such as:

“Rabbis for Human Rights” my ***. Stay in Toledo, Mr. Leff. You’re no “spiritual leader” — you are a defeatist who is more worried about the enemy than about your own people.

Of course, nowhere did I say I was MORE concerned about the enemy than my own people.

Leff’s drivel has to be one of the most stupid pieces JP has ever published — stupid and smug pseudo-moralistic superiority.

Well, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well go for being the worst.

Another person wrote

No, that’s not gonna work, Mr. rabbi or not rabbi. We just don’t have enough Jews left on earth to implement your kind but silly ideas.

He didn’t seem to notice that they weren’t my kind but silly ideas – they were ideas that had been adopted by the Israeli Defense Forces years ago, ideas that were praised by Rabbi Shlomo Goren z”l, the late chief rabbi of the IDF who also served as chief rabbi of Israel.  Rabbi Goren, a noted right-winger who reportedly favored tearing down the Dome of the Rock and building the Third Temple.  Rabbi Goren said

Human life is undoubtedly a supreme value in Judaism, as expressed both in the Halacha and the prophetic ethic. This refers not only to Jews, but to all men created in the image of God.

Another invective hurler wrote

The author of this ridiculous contention fails to understand the difference between being moral and being suicidal.

As if those are the only choices – to be moral means to be suicidal.

A similar “either/or” approach is found in this one:

For certain the moral lectures we are getting from Barry Leff are no representation of genuine Judaism. He is a fit candidate for an Imam. Imams are the ones who are under obligation to preach heresy, confusion and self deception. Some people have no love for Israel. What kind of a state do people have in their minds? Does he mourn the recent death of IDF members? This article is offensive and an excessive abuse of free speech. War is war and should be understood as such. Is Leff lecturing about holy war? Then he should quote the Qu’ran not Jewish religious literature.

Again the either / or … if you are concerned about the death of innocent civilians on the other side, it must mean you are not concerned about the death of Israelis.

This one at least made me smile:

Is Rabbi Leff afraid that if Israel gets tough he might have a tougher time at interfaith gatherings?

Oh yes, there’s a good reason to want Israel to act morally.

Now some people weren’t content to simply dis me, they had to dis the Conservative movement, as in this one:

But we cannot accept the fraudulent radical goyish “theology” of Conservative Judaism– specifically its Man-Made Written and Oral Torah, rejection of the binding obligation of the Written and Oral Torah (since they claim it’s Man-Made), rejection of rabbinic laws, non-halachic davening (Christian style-mixed seating), removal of portions of the shemoneh esrei, total disregard for the shabbos malachot, disregard for scholarship, etc.

Wow.  That one certainly had a lot to do with what I wrote.  I wasn’t even identified as a Conservative rabbi – he must have gone to the effort of looking me up on the internet.

Another one who looked up my Conservative
background wrote

Foolishness like this is precisely what you can expect if you allow the Masorti movement [Conservative Judaism] to grow stronger in Israel. It’s basically just a slightly more knowledgeable version of illiterate Judaism than the Reform but with all the liberalism that Reform has (that sentence is certainly to speak of “illiterate!”). Leff is a great example of it but he’s far from the only one. The movement thrives on being liberal and misquoting Talmud and Text to bolster their silly views that are not based on Torah Judaism.

This also is absurd – obviously there are some very right wing Conservative rabbis, and some liberal Orthodox rabbis.

And then there were the ones who picked up on the note that I was planning to make aliyah next year, and couldn’t resist picking on that.

Please do Israel a big favor, rabbi. Do not make aliya.”  And one who wrote “While I’m all for everyone making Aliyah, in this author’s case I would make an exception. We have enough fuzzy thinkers and nut jobs here as it is. Stay where you are, and make your asinine comments from afar. Very afar! Have a nice day!

Yes, Israel is home for all Jews – as long as you think like I do.  But someone came to my defense in response to this one, and wrote

We have enough simple-minded, belligerent people like you — I’d rather you go back in exchange for Rabbi Leff.

There was also a category of posts which focused on my service to Rabbis for Human Rights and spent themselves denigrating the work of that organization.  I won’t bother quoting them, because I think by now you get the idea.

As I read this stuff, I felt very uncomfortable, not because they were picking on me, I can handle that, but because of a concern about what it said about Israeli society.  This is where I want to take my children?  One of my few fans on the talkbacks put it nicely:

Reading many of the responses to Rabbi Leff’s article, I’m left with a sense of growing dread. The Talmud teaches us that God allowed the first temple to be destroyed because of Avodah Zarah, idol worship, and the second temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, senseless hatred. Both times prophets and rabbis tried desperately to warn us to turn from our path of self-destruction and find our way back to God. We were stiff-necked and too convinced of our own righteousness. Our punishment was a near 2000-year exile at the mercy of the other nations. Did we learn our lesson? Were two millennia enough to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh? Judging from the responses of these “dedicated” Jews, it doesn’t seem like it. Once again religious leaders make desperate attempts to wake us out of our delusions of infallibility. If we don’t listen, I fear our children will soon face another exile and only the Almighty knows when it will end.

So where does all the negativity come from?  Why do some people insist on attacking anyone who disagrees with them?

I believe the problem is that most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity.  We like to have things settled.  We like things to be black and white.  We like to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.  We like our good guys really good and we like our bad guys really bad.

Even though Judaism often seems comfortable with ambiguity – the Talmud will carry an argument for two pages without reaching a conclusion – there is also a tendency to try and make things black and white. This week’s Torah portion serves up an example: the blessings are really wonderful blessings, and the curses are really horrible curses.  There’s no middle ground.

What’s more, if you read the stories in the Bible “straight up,” without looking at the commentaries, what you read are the stories of some very flawed human beings—complex and interesting characters.  To take just one example, look at the life of Abraham.  He has many fine moments – like when God tells him lech lecha, go, leave, head out and trust me, and he does.  What I believe to be one of the finest moments in the Bible, Abraham arguing with God – imagine the chutzpah, arguing with God – that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be spared if there are righteous people living there.  But this same righteous hero passes his wife off as his sister to the Pharaoh, doesn’t argue with God when God asks him to sacrifice his son, and he lets his wife badger him into sending his son from another woman off into the desert to die.  So read the text and Abraham comes across as an incredibly inspirational, and an incredibly troubling figure.

There are many other examples of ambiguous characters in the Bible: David the sinner, Bilam who wants to curse the Jews but listens to God and doesn’t.  Esau, Jacob’s brother, who doesn’t come across as wicked in the plain text reading of the Torah–if anything he comes across as taken advantage of.

But with many of these figures the commentators, especially Rashi, go to great lengths to whitewash the not nice things the good guys did, and if there were such a word “blackwash,” paint in a more negative light, the things the bad guys did.  You read Rashi’s commentary and it’s as if he’s trying to increase the contrast between good and evil.  If the good guys did something that seems morally questionable, it’s because there’s more to the story that we don’t understand, and what they did was actually OK.  If a bad guy does something nice, he finds a way to make it negative.  My favorite example is when Jacob and Esau have their reunion after having been separated for years.  The Torah tells us “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.”  Makes Esau sound like a decent guy.  But since Esau was the designated bad guy in the Jacob – Esau struggle, Rashi says the reason Esau cried is because he was going to bite Jacob in the neck, but a miracle turned Jacob’s neck to marble, and Esau hurt his teeth.  Wow!  That’s certainly not what’s written there.  Similarly Jacob and his mother Rebecca’s deceitfulness gets whitewashed away as being OK because they were doing it to fulfill God’s will that he be the father of the Jewish people.  God’s will couldn’t come about some other way?

We like things black and white.  We like our good guys good, so some people will come along and make everything that Abraham did good, and we like our bad guys bad, so some people will interpret everything that Bilam or Esau did in a negative light.

So some people did to me what Rashi did to Esau.  They decided that if I thought we should be concerned about killing innocent Arabs, I must not be concerned about the death of Jewish soldiers.  Which of course is nonsense.  Obviously I am more disturbed about the death of a Jewish soldier than an Arab civilian.  The Jewish soldier is family, it’s very painful.  The closer you are to someone, the more you mourn.  You sit shiva for your family, not for strangers.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be completely immune to feeling that the death of a stranger is a tragedy.

Nowhere in my article did I say that we shouldn’t strike our enemies strongly.  I believe the IDF should have hit Hezbollah harder than they did earlier than they did with a ground attack that would have really rooted out the weapons.  Such an attack could have been conducted while still operating within the guidelines of the Code of Ethics.  The Code of Ethics says you have to work to minimize civilian losses.  It doesn’t say you have to turn the other cheek, and it doesn’t say there will never be any civilian losses.

Life is not black and white.  It comes in shades of gray.  Good guys sometimes do bad things, and there are often some redeeming features to people we’ve designated bad guys.  War confronts us with difficult ethical decisions.  One colleague was involved in the first Lebanon war, and his commander told him not to shoot when Palestinians with rocket propelled grenades had civilians in front of them.  Two of his Army buddies got killed.  To this day he doesn’t know whether they did the right thing or not.

I don’t know whether they did the right thing or not, and I certainly would not criticize them if they fired in self defense even if there were civilians in the area.  But I think to fail to consider the fact that civilians were there would be to lose our humanity.  It is appropriate we agonize over decisions like that, regardless of which way the question is answered in a particular case.

One of the other people who wrote in said

Rabbi Leff is right in supporting human values even in wars. As a soldier and officer in the artillery of the IDF I remember I participated in committing war crimes in the past, shelling civilians. To this day it gives me bad feelings to remember that.

No soldier should leave the field of battle feeling dirty, like they did something wrong.  Sticking to the Code of Ethics is not easy.  The battlefield presents ambiguous situations, and the answer is not “never shoot when civilians are present” and the answer is not “who cares if there are civilians present.”

This is not just an abstract lesson.  We all have to deal with ambiguity in our lives.  In a few weeks it will be Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, the day when the imagery of our tradition tells us there are three books open, one for the completely righteous, one for the completely wicked, and by far the largest volume, the volume where 99% of us are found, one for the in between.  If we can’t be completely righteous, we need to strive to be as righteous as we can, so as to merit a place in the Book of Life.

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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