Unlike Parshat Ki Tetzei, which has an abundance of laws, Parshat Ki Tavo contains few halachot. Instead, Parashat Ki Tavo is replete with curses.

The Talmud states, following the implication of the passage, “These shall stand to bless the people…and these shall stand for the curse”,1 that at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal there were two formulas. Those standing for the curse pronounced the curses as they appear in the Torah, and those standing for the blessing pronounced an opposite formula: “Blessed is he who does not make a graven or molten image,” “Blessed is he who does not dishonor his father and mother,” and so forth.2

If a “blessing formula” was in fact pronounced, why does the Torah cite only the curses and not use the positive language of the blessings? Why is the blessing formula only implied and not written in the Torah explicitly? While it is true that the Torah generally tends to be concise, positive language could still have been used, especially in light of the Talmud’s assertion that the Torah goes to great lengths, often employing circumlocutions, in order to use clean, decent language.3

Too Much Good

It is far simpler to create a curse than to create a blessing. This is not because people are generally wicked, but because the moment something diverges from its usual order, it is already a curse. Normally, there is more of a basis for curses than for blessings, because only the optimal state is considered a blessing. Whether it is too hot, too cold, or too rainy, if it is not perfect then it is a curse. Thus, the margin for the optimal is very narrow, and if conditions incline even slightly to one side, it is already no longer optimal. As the Talmud says, “Your people…can endure neither too much good nor too much ­punishment”.4 Even if one is given more and more of something, he will not necessarily be better off.

The pauper says, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but provide me with my daily bread”.5 That is to say, both a pauper and a wealthy person face unique problems and trials connected to their station. One should not strive for maximum prosperity, because this does not guarantee that the situation will truly be better. In fact, after a little too much prosperity, it stops being pleasant; after a little more, it becomes unpleasant; and finally, it becomes painful. In anything concerning the physical pleasures of this world, there is a stage at which the more one receives, the more unpleasant it becomes.

In light of this, there is more of a basis for curses than for blessings in our world. But despite this, we have one powerful claim to make before G‑d when we pray for blessing: By now, all the curses described throughout Tanakh – those in Leviticus, those here in Deuteronomy, and those in Ezekiel – have all been fulfilled. I knew a woman who was the only girl to survive the Vilna Ghetto. She and her family were very far from Judaism, and she said that she was moved to return to observance when she encountered the Tokheĥa section in Parashat Bechukotai; she saw that everything that is written there came true. People did not think or believe that these things could come about, and the fact that all the curses came true caused her to experience a change of heart. While all the curses seem to have been realized, however, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of many of the blessings.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues once saw a fox emerging from the site of the Holy of Holies, and Rabbi Akiva laughed, saying, “So long as Uriah’s prophecy [‘Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the House as the high places of the forest’]6 had not been fulfilled, I was afraid that Zechariah’s prophecy [‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the broad places of ­Jerusalem’]7 might not be fulfilled. Now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled”.8

In this sense, we, too, should laugh. G‑d was faithful in bringing upon us the curses, so He will surely bring upon us the blessings as well. So long as all these things had not been fulfilled, one could say that it will happen in far-off times. But now that, in our times, curses that no one would have believed would occur have come about, the blessings, too, will surely be fulfilled.

Even the final curse, “There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maids, but there will be no buyer”9 – which no one would have believed could occur – we have witnessed in recent memory.

Leaving the Sheltered Environment

In this Parsha, as in other places in the Torah, many harsh things are described. Why are so many curses necessary? Why is it necessary to threaten the people with such dire consequences for disobedience? Why can’t the Torah always speak pleasantly?

Seeing as the Torah nevertheless frequently insists on expressing itself in the form of curses, apparently this is necessary. Although the Torah certainly contains its share of blessings, it is truly difficult to be a Jew, and the curse section written here only emphasizes just how difficult it is. While we can understand the need for both the carrot and the stick, it is still a great challenge to accept this reality.

One of the main purposes of yeshivas, beyond allowing students to study Torah for its own sake, is to prepare students for the future. Despite this, a yeshiva is essentially a closed place, a sheltered environment, and a yeshiva student cannot truly feel how difficult it is to be a Jew. In such an environment, one struggles primarily with subtleties and nuances of faith and Torah. To be sure, there are occasionally major struggles, but the challenges and temptations faced by a yeshiva student are immeasurably fewer than the temptations that exist outside. As a result, it is sometimes hard to leave such a sheltered environment, and because of this, many students indeed avoid leaving this shelter at all. However, when these students are forced to leave, for one reason or another, this becomes a moment of dangerous crisis.

There was a time when psychologists discouraged parents from telling their children frightening stories. Now, however, the opposite is encouraged; the claim is that if children never hear about the dark side of life, they will grow up with a distorted view of life. If we shield them from evil, telling them that the world is entirely delightful and everyone is good, they will have difficulty coping with the real world when they grow older.

Death, for example, is frightening, and there were societies – such as the kibbutzim of the past – that distanced children from any exposure to it. I once attended the funeral of a teacher in a certain kibbutz, and I didn’t see anyone under the age of twenty-three; they had all avoided coming. This attitude is an attempt to push aside the fact that such a thing exists.

A person like that who emerges from a sheltered environment and faces reality will have a harder time dealing with it. At one stage or another, everyone encounters lies and deceit, and when a child grows up under the illusion that there are no thieves and liars in the world, the result may be a major personal crisis.

The Challenge

Despite the Torah’s message that, “It is not in heaven…It is not beyond the sea…It is something that is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it”,10 in our world it is hard to be a Jew. The Torah merely says that it is possible, that the Torah contains nothing that a person cannot live up to. But this does not mean that it is easy, because we live among human beings and not in a sheltered environment where there is almost no exposure to the evil inclination.

To be sure, our sages advise us that “if this repulsive scoundrel [the evil inclination] confronts you, drag him to the beit midrash”,11 but sometimes we forget that the scoundrel is with us in the beit midrash as well. As the Kotzker Rebbe once remarked, “this scoundrel” implies that there is yet another scoundrel: the one in the beit midrash.

All of this is not meant to frighten us. The purpose of the curses is to make us aware that following the Torah presents a great challenge, and the more we are exposed to the world, the greater the challenge becomes. It is a challenge that comes along with both blessings and curses. We must remain undaunted by these curses, rising to meet the challenge.