The Torah contains some sections that are deemed too unpleasant to be read aloud to a vulnerable, sensitive audience.
Chapter 28 of the book of Deuteronomy is one such section. When this chapter is reached in the annual cycle of Torah readings, it is read quickly, without interruption and in an undertone.
And it is pretty horrible. It begins with a common Biblical statement: “This is what will happen if you listen to the voice of the Eternal your God…”
After a list of blessings that will come if the Israelites observe God’s teachings, follows 50 verses of the most horrendous curses that will follow if they do not.
These include the people being inflicted with festering sores and tumours, madness, blindness and confusion of mind.
The most horrific section is when the people are told that a nation will come from the north and besiege their cities. The inhabitants will starve. Such will be their hunger that they will be forced to eat their own babies.
No wonder this section is read in an undertone. But what is something so unpleasant doing in our holy scripture?
The answer lies in recognising for whom this section of Deuteronomy was written. Its target audience was exiles from Judah, who had recently been brought to Babylon by their captors.
The Babylonians were the enemy from the north who besieged the cities of Judah – specifically Jerusalem – starving those who lived there.
Deuteronomy 28 – indeed the entire book of Deuteronomy – was intended to explain to the people in exile that they were there because they had not obeyed God’s instructions.
When they heard the consequences of not listening to God’s voice, Judah’s exiles understood why they had been taken from their land.
his recognition of their failing was an essential first step on their journey that would eventually take them back home.
Rabbi Pete Tobias is rabbi at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree
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