Mention parshat Ki Tavo and most people who know the Torah say, the tochecha, the long list of curses that will befall the Israelite nation if they do not adhere to the commandments of the Torah. If you followed the reading in English you saw how gruesome the list is.
But the long tochecha, and the short list of blessings that precedes it, are in turn preceded by another list of curses that were to be recited out loud. And not just recited. The Israelites, after entering the land, were to be divided into two camps, six tribes and six tribes, each on two facing mountains, with the Holy Ark between them.
According to the Torah there are only curses. According to Rashi, the Levites would read out each statement twice, once as a blessing and once as a curse: “Blessed is the person who does not make a sculpture or cast idol – which is repulsive to the Almighty, your God even if it is a piece of fine sculpture – and places it in a hidden place.” All the people on Mount Grizim would respond and say, ‘Amen’ And then the Levites would read out the opposite: “Cursed is the person who makes a sculpture or cast idol – which is repulsive to the Almighty, your God even if it is a piece of fine sculpture – and places it in a hidden place.” And those on Mount Eval would respond: ‘Amen’.
This ritual would continue for 12 blessings-curses: making idols, honoring parents, moving a boundary marker, misleading the blind, and perverting justice for the disenfranchised. Four cases of sinful sexual liaisons, followed by a curse on he who strikes down his neighbor in secret. Next to last is the curse for a person who takes a bribe, and finally a curse on anyone who does not uphold and keep this entire Torah. And to all, the people say, ‘Amen.’
Picture the scene. The whole nation is lined up on two mountain tops and pairs of blessings-curses ping-pong back and forth with the nation intoning a heartfelt “Amen” to each one. This is Cecil B. DeMille big time!
But why were these commandments singled out? There seems to be no rhyme or reason. In fact, the Abravanel says point blank – I have no idea why these commandments were chosen.
We have two commandments that specifically cite the hidden aspect of the forbidden act: making statues and hiding them, and hitting a person in secret. Yet many of the other sins enumerated are also performed in secret, hidden from the eyes of the public. What is the Torah trying to tell us here? According to Rabbi Ari Kahn, the message is subtle but clear. It’s what you don’t see and don’t know that can hurt you and unravel a society.
We’re almost finished reading the Torah. We have gone through just about 610 of its 613 mitzvot. We have the punishments to be given for those sins that we commit. Many of them are, by their nature, hidden, of course. But the assumption is that truth will out, and the bad deeds will come to light and receive their just punishment. That’s what the courts are for!
Yet here, as the people enter their land, after 40 years of desert hopping, they are being told something that must have sprung from experience. And that something is that what you don’t see may be more dangerous than what you do see.
You make an idol, a beautiful piece of art, but you hide it. You don’t want people to know you are worshipping an idol. You trip up a blind person, whether physically or by giving him erroneous information that misleads him. In the dead of night you go out and change the boundary markers, taking just a little more land than you had. Your neighbor won’t mind because he won’t know.
We’ll bribe a few people, on the QT, no one has to know. We’ll get a good deal, pay a little kickback, maybe earn a few million extra bucks. Or we’ll pay the judge to make sure that guy who’s causing me trouble is put away on some trumped up charge. Or we’ll have the trouble maker beaten up. No one has to know.
This is the superhighway to moral bankruptcy, to the end of the Zionist dream, to the end of Jewish ethics.
Reading this list is like leafing through the daily newspaper, page after page. Then look at the list of punishments that appear in the tochecha that follows, and you’ll find their equivalents in the other pages of the newspaper. Starvation in Africa, tsunamis that kill thousands in the far east or Mexico, floods in India and the US, earthquakes here there and everywhere. Atrocities beyond description committed not only by ISIS but by dictators, extremist groups (acting in the name of God, of course) and everyday terrorists all over. It seems that since World War II, we are no longer singled out for punishments any more than other nations.
I am a believer in the pendulum theory, of which there are many variations. I’m talking about the swing between liberalism and extremism. After the horrors and dictators of World War II we slowly entered a period of liberalism, which flowered in the 1960s and continued into the 70s, 80s and even 90s. All of our liberal dreams seemed to be coming true.
But on a global scale, we are fast returning to the rule of dictatorship and cruelty. We are evidently unable to help ourselves. When things seem to be getting too good, they have to get bad. And hopefully it works the other way too.
I know this is a depressing message to leave you with just before Rosh Hashana. On the other hand, let us hope that the new year coming upon us in less than two weeks will usher in a period of greater light and understanding and proper behavior, both overt and covert, for a better Israel and a better world.
Shana Tovah. Shabbat Shalom