In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo, the Israelites are given the final laws of the Deuteronomic legal code. They are reminded of the loving and legal covenant between Gd and the people of Israel and told that when they arrive in the Promised Land that they are to recite ritually the blessings and the curses of obeying or disobeying the covenant. I’ve learned that the curses are to be chanted in a whisper, while the blessings can be chanted fully aloud. This Shabbat you may hear certain verses of Torah chanted in a hush. Doing this sends a powerful message about those verses. Perhaps they are too painful to say or hear aloud. Perhaps we are meaning to de-emphasize the negative aspects of being responsible for our part in a relationship with Gd. Or perhaps we’re trying not to tempt fate by saying bad outcomes out loud! Either way, when we whisper, we make those verses harder to hear.
I’ve been feeling overwhelmed again by the news. The bombing attacks in New York and here in New Jersey, needless to say, hit very close to home. We are inundated by the news this past week of two more high profile and highly questionable murders of African Americans at the hands of police in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Across the globe, the world’s worst-ever refugee crisis rages while Syria is ravaged by war. Help convoys are attacked by enemy jets from the sky and other whole communities and villages are disrupted or aflame. These are definitely curses, and (thankfully, I think) we’re not hearing about them in a hush. Even as its overwhelming to hear about so much violence and inhumanity, I don’t wish for these terrible events to be subsumed in silence.
These are terrible, terrible world and local events. But are they the same kind of curses to which the Torah alludes in this week’s parashah? That’s not easy to tease out. As for curses, Torah teaches that if we do not obey Gd and observe Gd’s commandments faithfully, then Gd “will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake” (Deuteronomy 28:20), “strike you with madness, blindness and dismay” (Deuteronomy 28:28), and you “shall be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help” (Deteronomy 28:29). Calamity, panic, frustration, abuse, injustice, and dismay all feel like curses to me, and apt descriptions of today’s world events or the feelings I have when witnessing them. And Torah also teaches: “Because you would not serve Adonay your Gd in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything – the enemies whom Adonay will let loose against you” (Deteronomy 28:48). In other words, we are subject to curses when we fail to serve Gd appropriately during times of abundance. As a citizen of one of the world’s most-wealthy nations, with one of the largest disparities between the haves and the have-nots, this feels like an apt description of what happens when we manage that abundance with selfishness, a me focus, rather than selflessness, an other or Gd focus. Let me say it even one more way: if the Ten Commandments are a lot like a charter or mission statement for a community and the rest of the mitzvot in the Torah come to teach us how to live our lives in support of that mission, then good things come for our community when we follow those rules. And when we don’t, well, you know.
As I read the list of curses and blessings in this week’s Torah portion, something stood out to me that I had never noticed before. Perhaps you’ve never noticed it either. Half of the tribes are to recite the curses and half to recite the blessings. But only after each curse are the people to declare “Amen!” So that when the curse is announced, it’s like the people are asked to rally around it and affirm its insidiousness. By contrast, the blessings require no such communal declaration, perhaps because what is good in the eyes of Gd and humanity requires no extra affirmation. When we do what’s right and receive blessings as our reward, perhaps that’s all most of us need; it’s sufficiently motivating. Actions that promise immediate benefits to us individually while subverting the public good, however, are sneaky and much more seductive. They call to us, as we see the opportunity for gain in them or we see others profiting by them. These, the Torah seems to suggest, need the strength of a community rejecting them, require a common will and a culture of accountability.
Among those curses which the people rallied against lo those many years ago, a list which includes incest and other hidden crimes, we find: “Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. – And all the people shall say, Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:19). This could as easily have been listed as a blessing: Blessed are those who protect the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow. And at other points in the Torah we are commanded, as a positive command, to protect the rights of vulnerable and marginalized peoples. But Torah is teaching us an important lesson here by including this on the list of curses which require communal will and accountability, and a timely one. We are at a decision point. If we really want to follow the rules and the life lessons which bring us blessings, the ones our ancestors faithfully recorded and passed down to us, the ones we must interpret diligently through the lens of our times, then we are going to need a resounding Amen! from the entire community. Because as you know there are people right now in our public square who are trying to get resounding support for subverting the rights of the most vulnerable, and especially right now, the stranger. Politicians, demagogues, and hate groups all are stirring up fear and hatred of others in our populace, and in many cases getting communal affirmation. So this Shabbat, I’ll ask you to consider chanting this curse out loud, as our news reels do. So that we too can be reminded that subverting the rights of the stranger, the widow and the orphan, is in fact a curse. And so that we too can be given a chance as a community to reject that path, to affirm and enact protection and care for the weak and the vulnerable as our communal will.
Can I get an Amen?!