98 Curses; No Waiting


the expression of a wish that misfortune, evil, doom, etc., befall a person, group, etc.

The hardest thing for a teacher, parent or mentor is to see the fall of his gifted charge. That youngster had such promise and frittered it away.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses enumerates 98 curses that will befall the Children of Israel if they don’t obey G-d. The curses far outnumber the blessings. Many of the blessings had already been given to the flock as they prepared to leave the desert for the Land of Canaan. More blessings would await them when they settled into their new homes across the Jordan River.

But there is an upshot: The scenario in which Israel settles the land and rejects G-d and His commandments. In his rebuke, Moses prophesies the natural disasters, wars, disease, famine, poverty and exile that the Jewish people will suffer. The commentator Yonatan Ben Uziel says when Moses spoke the world became agitated. The ground rumbled; the sun, moon and stars trembled; the dead screamed. But the trees remained still; the animals and people silent. None of them was able to pray for Israel.

This was not simply punishment. It was justice. Why would G-d expel the seven nations from Canaan because of their sins and give the land to a people who do the same? After all, Israel might be G-d’s chosen people, but the same rules apply to everyone.

Rabbi Ovadia Ben Yaakov Sforno, the 15th Century Italian sage, explains that the rebukes tell the history of the Jews. The first list covers the period of the Greek occupation of Israel, and the second deals with the Roman occupation. The Sforno knew Rome well. He arrived in that city before his 20th birthday and soon became known as a scholar in both Scripture as well as medicine, mathematics and philosophy.

In the Torah portion called Ki Tavo, or “When you arrive,” Moses interrupts the curses. He repeats three terms: preserving the commandments, performing the commandments and listening to G-d. It is impossible for any one Jew to perform the 613 edicts in the Torah. Many of them are meant for those living in the Land of Israel during the Temple. Some are reserved for priests; others for women.

But all of the commandments can be preserved. They can be taught regardless of where Jews live and whether the Temple stands. Some commandments, such as Shmita, are observed so that they will not be forgotten during the long exile. Preserving a commandment gives hope that one day it can truly be performed. There is faith in G-d’s mercy and justice.

When there is no faith; when commandments are shoved aside, there is no belief in G-d. Instead, there is passivity and even cynicism, regardless of outward piety. How many Jews insist on remaining in the Diaspora? They assiduously observe the Sabbath, dietary laws and study Torah daily. But when it comes to living in the Land of Israel, many of them say they are awaiting the Messiah. When he knocks, they’ll answer.

Moses adds that the curses mark a response to a Jew’s behavior. They are a reminder that he is falling; his faith disappearing. G-d has been marginalized.

And they will be as a sign and a wonder, upon you and your offspring, forever, because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.

Can there be happiness in the exile? Can there be happiness in a hostile world? The answer is yes. The joy stems from a Jew’s faith and observance. Then, he stands above the temporal and takes his place next to G-d. He is a student with a teacher, a son with a father, a man with a wife.

And here is the flip side of Moses’ explanation. If the curses come because a Jew rejects the joy of faith and observance, then the opposite takes place if he serves with love. All men were created to serve. For the gentiles, the choice is serving G-d or idols. For Jews, the choice is serving G-d or serving the enemy, who, as the Torah portion says, “will place an iron yoke upon your neck, until he has destroyed you.”

Sounds simple? Every choice is simple when one understands the price. Would you rather serve a merciful and just G-d or be a slave to a cruel human?

There were two sets of curses. One in Ki Tavo and the other in the Torah portion of Behukotai, read several months ago. In Behukotai, there are 49 curses; they are written in the plural. And at the end, G-d brings consolation.

In Ki Tavo, there are double the number of curses, many of them already uttered in Behukotai, and written in the singular. No consolation.

The commentators explain that this is no coincidence. In Behukotai, the object is the Jewish people. G-d will have mercy on them regardless — therefore the consolation.

But Ki Tavo deals with the individual. He refuses to listen, rejects the Torah, mocks faith in G-d and has thrown his lot with other nations. He sees no reason for repentance. For him, there is no joy — only empty laughter.

For the wicked, there is no consolation. When he is gone, however, the world will rejoice.

The finality of such a fate is the greatest curse of all.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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