Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Ki Tavo: Curses and Blessings

0 Comments 07 September 2017

As we approach the new Jewish year, Jews are commanded to go through a personal and public process of introspection and soul searching. In his commentary to Parashat Ki Tavo, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann examines the behaviours we must work to avoid, both as individuals and as a society.

By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

By Unknown - International Dunhuang Project, Public Domain

Selichot prayer leaf. By Unknown – International Dunhuang Project, Public Domain

“Blessing and curse” are a pair of concepts with which we are familiar in our Torah, and once again in this week’s Torah reading they appear. The people must choose between good and evil, between commitment to the covenant and its abandonment (for false pagan worship and its moral corruption), between loyalty to the Torah and its abrogation. They stand opposite Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim and proclaim their commitment to the covenant, to the Torah, and they curse (“cursed be…cursed be…cursed be…”) those who do not do so, especially those who pretend to be committed but in secret act immorally.

We are in the middle of the month of Elul, the time of selichot (penitential prayers) during which we prepare for the “days of awe” (also known as the High Holydays). This is a time for corrective introspection (“Heshbon Nefesh”) on the individual level, the communal, and the public as well… The Torah reading this week and next are most suitable texts for this period in the annual cycle of festivals and celebrations.

In our portion there are twelve verses that start with the word “be cursed” (one against each of the twelve tribes according to one interpretation.)  Amongst them appear the following verses dealing with social justice:

“Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen” (Deuteronomy 27: 17)

“Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way…” (ibid, verse 18)

“Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow…” (verse 19)

“Cursed be he that smiteth his neighbour secretly…” (verse 24)

“Cursed be he who taketh reward (a bribe) to slay an innocent person. And all the people shall say, Amen” (verse 25)

Most of the traditional commentators point out  a notable characteristic of the elements that make up this list – each verse of which opens with the word “Be cursed” – to which the people respond with “Amen” and that is that they are negative behaviours done to the vulnerable and weak in society. These acts leave little possibility of social support as others in society might well not know of them and thus the victims have no recourse; the bad things done or that could be done are done “in secret,” an expression that appears twice in the beginning and towards the end of the list.

The Biblical commentator, Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezkia the son of Manuach  from the 13th century) for instance says: “a stranger, orphan, or widow;” all these categories of people lack influential friends or protectors who will protest their having been maltreated to the authorities. The only two sins listed here which are committed openly are idolatry and violent behaviour against one’s neighbour, committed usually while angry and out of control. This is why the Torah adds the word “committed secretly,” when speaking of these two sins. When these two sins are committed openly there is a court which can take action against the perpetrator. (See Deuteronomy, Chapter 26, verses 19-24.)

Alternatively the 15th century Italian commentator, Sforno, says:

“…all of the ‘cursed be’ mentioned here had first been intoned as a blessing for all the people refraining from becoming guilty of the sins that are mentioned here. ..The principal reason for these lines is to curse the sinners who violate these commandments, so that they alone will bear the burden of their guilt, the people at large not sharing in that responsibility. The reason is that the sinners referred to were in the main the leaders of the people, so that the ordinary Israelite did not have the power to protest the carrying’s on of their leaders. This thought has been stated clearly by Ezekiel 22, 6-7 ‘every one of the princes of Israel in their midst used his strength for the shedding of blood, etc. etc.’ In that same chapter the prophet specifically singled out most of the (12) sins listed in our paragraph here. These obscenities were all carried out in Jerusalem; however, this does not mean that all the inhabitants of the city were guilty of these iniquities, mostly it was the highly placed members of society who were guilty of them.” (Comment on Deut 26:15)

A comment by Samson Rafael Hirsch (19th century, Germany) regarding the nature of those deeds listed here and their doers describes well a reality with which we need to contend still today – a reality of  hypocrisy and false self-“righteousness” that unfortunately characterizes many people in the ruling political and economic elite of Israeli today, and anyone who reads newspapers lately or follows the electronic media certainly knows  – much to our chagrin and embarrassment as a people  – what we are talking about.

He says:

We find that it says ‘Be cursed’ regarding all those that are corrupt morally and socially but nevertheless maintain externally the appearance of legality..from the context then this is the idea of these curses…he pretends to be one who is loyal and close to God (or, alternatively, to ‘the values of Zionism and/or ‘democracy” – interprelation of Y.G.) but secretly he rejects this belief and the belief in Providence (or the other values he claims to be committed to). Externally he behaves with respect to his parents, but secretly in his heart he lords it over them and holds them in contempt…in the ears of the wise ones he speaks with enthusiasm about helping others, but he in fact brings disaster upon those who are blind or short-sighted, he is obsequious before the powerful and mighty but refrains from carrying out his duty toward the weak and defenseless..”

This is a difficult social challenge that is still with us in the public sphere in Israel, but nevertheless we should not accept the idea suggested by Sforno that it is possible for a society to free itself of responsibility for the behavior of its leaders. (Heschel: “Some are guilty but all are responsible!”) Furthermore, we should not only add our voices to those who say “curse them!” for the evil deeds they do even today in our midst against the weak and vulnerable, the refugees and in particular to the members of that other people over whom we rule, but beyond that we must act determinedly and untiringly to reveal these abuses, to prevent them and to punish and remove those who do them from power.

It is important to support a strong and independent judiciary and a “clean” police-force that is committed to truth in pursuing justice for all to the fullest extent possible. And when that is not possible to struggle personally against the widespread corruption in our society, polity and economy however we can.  We should never remain silent in the face of such evils but continue raising our voices to demand an end to them.

Wishing everyone Shabbat Shalom and a real “Heshbon nefesh” – one that leads to action.

Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is the director of organisational development at Rabbis for Human Rights.

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