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Ki Tavo Bet Shalom Zoom September 2020

09/05/2020 10:52:15 AM


Irene Stern Friedman


Ki Tavo means “When You Come In” and the parsha is best known for its long and horrible list of curses. The Talmud tells us that the rabbis who lived at the time of Ezra the Scribe decided that this parsha would always be read before Rosh Hashana. Their reason was reflected in the phrase “may the year and its curses come to an end”. Later, another phrase was added, “may the year and its blessings commence.”


The verses containing the tochecha, or “verses of rebuke”, warn us of the horrors that result if we desert Torah, and tell us the great success experienced by those who follow God’s laws. 


The curses are scary. It is difficult to read or hear these verses so the Torah reader recites them quickly and in an undertone.


Based on a statement in the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi tells us that when the Jewish people heard this portion they were terrified. Moshe reassured them, saying “although you have caused much anger to the Omnipresent, He has not utterly destroyed you…” (Rashi on Devarim 29:12).


Why did Moshe say this? Wouldn’t this reassurance make them dismiss the lesson? Moshe recognized that fear can paralyze people. The consequences of straying off of the path are terrifying, but we have managed to survive until now, and we will overcome our challenges in the future as well if we heed these words as we enter the new year and behave as we should. We hope to leave the curses in the old year. 


Rabbi Bernie Fox teaches that the blessing and curses are a list of behaviors that are either rewarded or punished. In our parsha, Moshe lists the behaviors that result in the curse. The Talmud suggests that the blessings – the behaviors to be rewarded – are the opposite of the behaviors that are punished. One of the curses is that a person who creates an idol is cursed. According to the Talmud, this curse has a corresponding blessing. One who refrains from creating an idol is blessed.  


Gershonides  (a Talmudist from the 1300s) explains that the curse and blessing represent opposite extremes. The blessing for observing the mitzvot is extreme well-being.  The consequence for abandoning the Torah is horrible suffering and misfortune.


Gershonides explains that the well-being or punishment promised for observance or abandoning the Torah is not a natural phenomenon. It is only possible through the intervention of Divine Providence.  


12 cursed activities are these: secret idolatry; insulting one’s father or mother; moving the boundary marker between fields; misleading a blind person; subverting the rights of a stranger, widow or orphan; sex between a man and his father’s wife; between a man and an animal; between a man and his sister; between a man and his wife’s mother; a secret violent attack; accepting a bribe in the spilling of innocent blood; and failure to “uphold this teaching.”


Why are these particular acts proclaimed as the ones to be avoided under penalty of being cursed? What do they all have in common?


These are acts committed in secret, either alone or with powerless people, often by stronger people able to avoid the reach of the law. They are crimes for which the only sure prevention is your values. The ritual of publicly cursing certain acts was an attempt to teach everyone who entered the land to do the right thing even in private.


Nina Wouk, an accountant who is active in her synagogue says:  Any community, with even the best set of rules, can be subverted if the rules are obeyed in the letter only. The history of the American South shows how the courts and the jury system served for decades to criminalize any act by a black person and decriminalize any killing of a black person. Attempts to legally protect private adult relationships; or to secure the family status of children of gay, bisexual or queer parents; or to prosecute killers of gay, bisexual or queer people show the same pattern. Laws are not enough; justice can only be realized fully through the will of those who carry out the laws.


Since no community works without people sharing values, Moses tries to develop people who look into, care about, and develop their own hearts. He says at the end of Parashat Ki Tavo, G-d didn’t give you eyes to see or hearts to understand until today. Trying to do the right thing is difficult without looking inward. Moses’s speech provides a ritual for developing self-consciousness.


To be effective, people must examine their behavior with  understanding of what is right. Moses tries to accomplish this by listing the 12 acts of secret wrongdoing, as a reminder of many detailed categories of wrongdoing, secret and public. By making people consider themselves cursed for doing wrong even unwitnessed, he hopes to assure that they will find the inner strength to do right.


Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim (Poland, 19th century) focuses on the end of our parsha 28:47 which says “Because you did not serve Adonai your G-d joyfully” as the main reason to be punished. Is lack of joy is a sin? This doesn’t mean that we can never be sad or angry, Rather, Rabbi Bunim is talking about making our religious and spiritual behavior joyful.

He means we should see our Judaism as a daily opportunity to find blessings in the world. 


Victor Frankl wrote "We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation,”   He says we can “transform personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation–-just think of an incurable disease-–we are challenged to change ourselves.“ He means we should accept whatever comes while living as Jews and trusting G-d.


Rabbi Neal Loevinger says “We get to pray every day, we get to say little blessings of gratitude before eating, we get to study laws for moral refinement, we get to sing and celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, we get to bring holiness into our lives through beautiful rituals. Making religion dreary is the way to drive people away from it.   Maybe that’s why not serving G-d “joyfully” is such a sin. “ 


Rabbi Andrew Klein said, “Moses teaches the Israelites the importance of expressing gratitude for all that God has given them.”  Like those people about to enter the Land of Israel, we are free, we have plenty to eat, and we have community.  These are blessings. 


To find gratitude during challenging life situations, we have to look beyond ourselves and within ourselves. It requires inner strength, which we can gain from the support of our community and G-d’s loving-kindness.  


Shabbat Shalom.


Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782