Parenting By Parsha: Ki Tavo

Getting a toddler to do what you want them to do is an art form I’m still perfecting. Actually, I have serious doubts about whether I will ever get it right, but I aim to sometimes win one or two skirmishes a day. Like, maybe this time the teeth will get brushed without too much fuss. Or maybe we can get dressed without a prolonged debate about where (or whether) to do so. Maybe every once in a while, when I ask to help clean up it happens the first time, easily, sans negotiation. 

Miracles happen, or so I’ve heard. 

There are a number of tactics that can be employed in order to get your kid to do whatever it is that needs to happen. There’s give-and-take negotiation (“ok, we can change the diaper on the chair, but you have to wear pants”), there’s hardlining (“no, we’re putting our plates in the sink right now”), there’s cajoling, (“let’s just put five cars in the basket!”), there’s diversion (“we can’t watch this tractor video, but look at this Lego tower!”) and so forth. They all work sometimes, but none of them work all the time. Part of the fun is not knowing what will work this time around, I guess?

My wife and I tend to err on the side of negotiation and cajoling, unless there’s a safety issue at hand. I’ve only raised my voice with my kiddo once or twice — when he tried to run into the street. Honestly, I was terrified at that moment and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that he was a little scared as well. He should conceive of the street as a scary place. 

Scaring someone into doing what you want is a tactic, too, I suppose, although not one I’d use except in the direst of circumstances. Whoever wrote this section of the Torah would obviously disagree with me on that. This person never heard of catching more flies with honey or sweet-talking people into doing what you’d like them to do. 

The biblical author here is divvying up the optional outcomes into two discrete piles: curses and blessings. Choose a life of virtue, says the text, and your rewards will be staggering. “The Lord will give you abounding prosperity,” says Deuteronomy 28:11, “in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil in the land.” Deuteronomy 28:3-6 gives a concise list of some of the ways in which you will be blessed. “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl,” and on and on. It’s gonna be sweet, says the Bible, but only if you hew to the commandments. Should you deviate from the straight and narrow, well, that’s a different story. 

The rest of the Torah portion, from about Deuteronomy 28:16 to the end, at 29:8, it’s…bad. Very bad. Whoever was in charge of coming up with threats was very creative; I had a hard time reading to the end, to be honest. 

“Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off,” says chapter 28, verse 26, and the text is just getting started. It goes on to say that “You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark; you shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help,” in verse 29. Rock bottom, as my father pointed out to me, comes in chapter 28, verse 68, when God promises to return the Israelites to Egypt in boats. No more big miracles, folks, you’re going back to the people who enslaved you, and you’re going back in a boat. 


The text is evocative and effective — after reading Ki Tavo, I wanted to go around checking my mezuzahs and make a list of commandments to brush up on. That is to say, fear is certainly a powerful motivator. It isn’t lost on me, for example, how many of these threats sound as though they may well come true if we don’t get our global act together when it comes to lowering carbon emissions (“Though you have olive trees throughout your territory, you shall have no oil for anointment, for your olives shall drop off,” says chapter 28, verse 40, reminding me of the drought in the western United States). Fear is definitely one reason why we recycle and try to cut back on plastic waste — a fear for the future of the planet my kiddo will be living on. 

When it comes to strategies for keeping people in line with certain values, though, I think fear will lose every time. Sure, I could make my kiddo afraid of what happens if he doesn’t brush his teeth or pick up his Legos, but how far will that really take me? One day, when I’m not around, he’ll do it anyway. Plus, he’ll grow up to be an anxious, stressed-out adult, acting out of fear instead of actual faith in the tenets the Torah proposes. Which aren’t bad tenets and values! This portion requires us to respect the elderly and bars us from placing a stumbling block before the blind. We’re supposed to care for the stranger in our midst and leave aside part of our harvest for the Levites, who don’t have agricultural land. 

Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend dozens of verses extolling the reasons why these are good choices, instead of describing all the horrific ways you can die if you make a different choice? By choosing to negotiate and provide reasons, we’re definitely making our task as parents and guides more difficult. Still, the straight and narrow can gain breadth if we’re willing to take the time to speak the why of the actions we believe are right.