Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Rabbi David Stav 

Usually, the content of the Torah portion that we read is unrelated to the time of year it is read in, since we have a set order for reading the parashot, starting after Simchat Torah, when Parshat Bereshit is read, until we complete the Sefer Devarim (Book of Deuteronomy) on Simchat Torah the following year. Parshat Ki Tavo, however, is a special case.
The Talmud tells us that the rabbis who lived during the time of Ezra the Scribe (the early Second Temple Period) determined that this parsha would always be read before Rosh Hashana. Their rationale was reflected in the phrase “Tichleh Shana Uklaloteha” – “may the year and its curses come to an end”. Today, we tend to tack on the flip-side of this phrase, “Tachel Shana Uvirchoteha” – “may the year and its blessings commence.”
The verses containing the p’sukei tochecha, the “verses of rebuke”, appear twice in the Torah: here, and in Parshat Bechukotai. They warn us of what may await us should we choose not to follow the precepts of the Torah, while foretelling the great success and abundance experienced by those who follow God’s laws. The expressions found in these verses are particularly harsh – here are just a few of the many grim expressions in this week’s portion:
– Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed in the field…
– Hashem will send degeneration into your midst… until you are destroyed…
– Hashem will smite you with wasting away, with fever and with fiery fever…
– … and you will be only harried and downtrodden all of your days…
(excerpted from Devarim / Deuteronomy 28:16-33)
It is difficult to either read these verses loud or hear them spoken, and this is perhaps why it is customary for the ba’al koreh (Torah reader) in the synagogue to recite them in an undertone. It is as if we want to deflect or conceal these expressions precisely because they are so harsh, so that no one should hear them in “full force” and perhaps even consider ill-wishing any people nearby.
In some places, the members of the congregation are hesitant to read out these verses, fearing that this would tempt fate, so either the shamash (synagogue ritual coordinator) or the ba’al koreh are asked to read them. However, fear isn’t the biggest problem. Hearing these verses read might also lead to a type of paralysis and discourage the participants from having anything to do with the Jewish people and its God.
I always wondered why it is better to read this portion before Rosh Hashanah, and not afterwards. Why was it so important for our rabbis to ensure that these curses remain tied up in the previous year, and not become part of the year we are ushering in? Would it not have been better to read these verses just as we begin the new year, so that we can get a sense of how serious our personal, familial and public issues are and heavily reflect on them? Wouldn’t we want to read the verses of rebuke before making decisions, so that we could seriously consider the outcome? Wouldn’t we want our leaders to do the same?
Apparently not. In life, whatever the issue at hand, you can’t go forward if, in the back of your mind, you constantly fear the effects of curses that may materialize. Granted, a person should use his or her best judgment when making decisions, but to make good decisions, we must also believe in ourselves and in our ability to make good decisions.
When our rabbis said “may the year and its curses come to an end” (Tractate Megillah, 31b), their intent was to bolster our faith in ourselves, as human beings, and in our ability to make the right choices. The last thing they would have wanted is for us to lose the most important thing we have – our faith in our ability to perform, to act and to progress.
Based on a statement in the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi tells us that when the Jewish people heard this rebuke, their faces grew pale, and they exclaimed “who could bear such things?”, whereupon Moshe turned to them and began to reassure 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 these verses of rebuke lose their deterrent effect after this reassurance? Moshe recognized that fear can also paralyze people. The consequences of straying off of the path would be dire. They sound terrible, and they are indeed terrifying, but we have managed to survive until now, and we will overcome our challenges in the future as well, if we take the curses into account, while keeping them where they belong – in the previous year – and marching forward, fearlessly, to surmount our next challenge.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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