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Deuteronomy. The list includes famine,
disease, and all other manners of devastation.
According to these chapters, the curses that
follow are the inevitable result of Israel’s sin,
especially breaking the covenant and dis-
obeying God. Such threats and their
supporting ideology are, at first glance,
anathema to us. Readers cringe when reading
the lists. Over the years, I have come to
know many a rabbi who bemoaned these
chapters, saying, “WHAT am I going to say
about THIS text on Shabbat?”
But before we toss out Deuteronomy, let’s
be clear about the Deuteronomic claims.
Deuteronomy maintains that the various
disasters, the “curses,” are not simply natural
phenomena to be endured passively. They
are contingent upon the behavior of the
society. The underlying presumption is that
the moral society, constructed along the lines
the Tanakh commands, uses its human and
natural resources responsibly. The respectful
use of land and the compassionate care for
the disenfranchised create and sustain a
healthy society. And that is what secures the
entire world. When a society fails to con-
struct an equitable life-support system, the
entire ecosystem suffers and disaster follows.
Epidemics, according to Deuteronomy, are
not accidents. They signal, on some level,
human disregard for the physical, religious
and moral aspects of life. It is tempting to
read these threats from Deuteronomy as
another case of simplistic theological cause
and effect. Even worse, it has been possible
to use the curses as another chilling excuse
for blaming the victim, claiming that those
who suffer must have done something to
deserve their fate. This misguided theology
and ideology represents the outlook of Job’s
friends in the Book of Job. Responding to
the death of Job’s children, one so-called
comforter states: “If your sons sinned
against Him, He dispatched them for their
transgression” (Job 8:4; JPS). God, however,
unambiguously chastises these friends for
their position (see Job 42:7).
To attribute this simplistic perspective to
Deuteronomy is to misread. Deuteronomy
is not proclaiming a simple, individual cause-
and-effect theology. For Deuteronomy, the
world remains an interlocking system, gov-
erned by a just and compassionate God who
cares deeply for those in the world, and who
is trying to shake those of us who are part of
the covenant to care and to take care as well.
Moses is addressing those about to “arrive”
(“
When you enter the land,”
ki tavo
,
Deuteronomy 26:1). By listing the diseases
and disasters that would follow disobedience,
Deuteronomy is essentially saying to those
who have arrived, or who are on the verge
of arriving, “When you come to the land,
you have the privilege and the power to
make a difference. You have arrived. Your
life as an individual is woven into the larger
fabric, for which you are also responsible.”
It claims that suffering individuals in our
midst are evidence not of their own trans-
gressions, but of the corporate, communal
failure to build a healthy society of economic
covenant. Deuteronomy therefore urges
those among us who have arrived to monitor
ourselves and our communities, to care and
to act. Optimistically, it assumes that we are
capable of doing just that.
Many of us remain troubled by the picture
of wholesale punishment for the crimes of
the few. We cringe at the prospect that the
innocent perish along with the guilty. Yet,
when we look around us, we must admit
that today, as in our past, we are living in
a world where countless people suffer
because of the crimes of the few. The few,
in many ways exemplified by those of us
privileged to live in North America and
Western Europe, are the cause of so much
that is economically rejected by the rest of
the world. We help perpetuate disease not
by wanton transmission and infection (as
was once the case), but because we have
not devoted nearly enough of ourselves or
of our vast resources to creating solutions.
We have not taken responsibility.
Inadvertently and without our consent
we in fact exemplify the phenomenon that
Deuteronomy describes. Our ancestors
explained this perspective through theologi-
cal language in which God plays a direct
role, and sought to remedy it by invoking
the fear and love that the relation with God
can generate. By recognizing these diseases
and disasters as communal problems, the
ancients learned to lift from the individual
the guilt that is so often attached to suffer-
ing. They made it clear that the source is not
with the lone sufferer, but those who have
the means and options to make a difference
yet fail to do so.
Maria Bamberger,
dear wife of the late
Dr. Fritz Bamberger, HUC-JIR faculty
member and advisor to Presidents Nelson
Glueck and Alfred Gottschalk. A dramat-
ic presence in Israel, she was instrumental
in the founding of our Jerusalem campus
and her life, together with Fritz, reflected
an abiding devotion to HUC-JIR.
Leah Fishbane,
beloved wife of our
colleague, Eitan Fishbane. Her memory
is a source of blessing.
Lisa Goldberg,
beloved wife of John
Sexton, President of New York University,
was tireless in her resourcefulness and per-
sonal advocacy on behalf of others. She
was a catalyst for change through her sin-
gular leadership at the Revson Foundation.
Teddy Kollek,
inspiring statesman,
visionary, and honorary alumnus of
HUC-JIR, was ever mindful of the
prophetic tradition and the words of
Nehemiah, “With one hand we build
and with one hand we protect.” His life
reflected his courage and determination
to establish Jerusalem as a home of peace
and harmony in the hearts of all people.
In Memoriam
36
THE CHRONICLE
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