The phrase “Let this year commence with its blessings” is a a common pre-Rosh Hashana greeting, but it is its converse. “Let that year conclude with its curses,” which has a much longer history. It’s the reason that we always read the 98 Curses of Deuteronomy 28 at least a week before the new year, according to the Talmud (Megilla 31b). However, that same passage indicates that, frightening though they might be, these curses are the mild ones. The ghost-pepper curses are the ones in Leviticus 26. Rashi (Deut. 28:23) explains the distinction:
These curses were stated by Moses of his own accord, while those at Sinai he pronounced from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He. This is demonstrated by the verses themselves… Moses made his curses milder, by expressing them in the singular form. Furthermore, in this curse, Moses made his milder… saying that the skies will sweat, and thus, even though they will not pour down rain, there will not be a consuming drought in the world.
The part about Moses stating these of his own accord is a philosophically thorny issue which I wrote about earlier this week. Regardless, it does force us to look at the Book of Deuteronomy in a different way, especially in its relationship to the Book of Leviticus.
- In Lev. 25:1-7, the sabbatical year is about letting the land observe “the sabbath of the Lord;” in Deut. 15:1-6, it’s all about debt relief.
- Lev. 25:46 says “You shall enslave them forever,” while Deut. 23:16 demands that the runaway slave be welcomed. (These dueling verses were used by supporters of slavery and abolition respectively in 19th-century America).
- Lev. 18:3 utterly rejects Egyptian culture, while Deut. (23:7-8) commands: “You shall not abominate an Egyptian.”
- Speaking of abominations, while this is a term used exclusively for illicit sex in Lev. 18 & 20, in Deut. it denotes a wide range of taboos: from idolatry and non-kosher food to various types of commercial, ritual and sexual fraud and those actual threats to traditional marriage: prostitution and divorce.
- In Lev. 23, holidays are about sacrifices; in Deut. 16, they are about sharing the wealth with one’s family and the poor.
- In fact, Leviticus mentions joy once; Deuteronomy talks about it a dozen times. In fact, Deuteronomy has three times more cheer than all of the other books combined! Truly, Deuteronomy is the gayest Book.
Hey, that reminds me, what about the gays? The fundamentalists tell us that their battle against “the homosexual agenda” (I can only assume it involves a dictatorship under Andy Cohen) is so exigent because society cannot survive if gays are tolerated, recognized or allowed to marry. Surely, if shrimp are an abomination in Deuteronomy, gays must be as well.
This makes the preamble to the Curses all the more curious. You see, before the (Blessings and the) Curses in chap. 28, chap. 27 details what would make the nation cursed. The whole people must assemble, upon crossing the Jordan, and forge a covenant; but since no one knows what happens behind closed doors, the people as a whole must execrate eleven types of covert transgressors. What secret sins undermine society? Well, we find the expected stuff about not abusing parents, neighbors, the blind, orphans, widows and strangers (yawn), but where’s the sexy stuff? Right in the middle (vv. 20-23):
Cursed be he that lies with his father’s wife; becase he uncovers his father’s bed. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with any kind of animal. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with his mother-in-law. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Wait, that’s it? Where are the gays? Doesn’t any decent society need to strongly express its condemnation of their lifestyle?
In fact, sex between men is mentioned just as many times in the Torah as sex with one’s daughter-in-law: namely, once each in Lev. 18 and 20. (Fewer, if you count the Judah and Tamar story.) Say, how many organizations are out there combating daughter-in-law love?
Moses knows what he is doing. It’s first-degree incest and bestiality that challenge society, not two men registering at Sur La Table.
I’ll leave you with this thought. Next week, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington, but I remember a different event, 25 years ago, the one for Soviet Jewry. I was too young to go, but my parents did, and it was an exhilarating experience. It was the clearest civil-rights issue of my youth: Russia was oppressing people who just wanted to be who they were, in public and without fear; so many were afraid to embrace their identity, rightly concerned about what the totalitarian government might do to them as “subversive elements” and “enemies of the state.” Beatings, imprisonment or worse–the brutality of bigotry in the starkest terms.
So, when’s the March on Washington for Russian gays?