This Shabbat at Maimonides, we will have the unusual experience of reading 147 curses as part of our Shabbat morning Torah reading.
Ever since our shul reopened to read Parshat Bamidbar, following our shut-down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been reading two Torah readings each week, and this week we finally come full circle reading the regular weekly parsha, Ki Tavo, along with our final make-up parsha, Bechukotai.
Following the ruling of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and others, and in recognition of the teachings of our founder, the Rav z”l (Sheiurei Ha-Rav Tefilah #38) and his teachers’ teacher the Vilna Gaon – we have been careful to read every Parsha this Jewish calendar year – proudly affirming that for whatever COVID has taken from us, it has not deprived us of the opportunity to read the entirety of Hashem’s Torah together as a community.
We’re doing so on behalf of the entire greater New England community. Since its founding in 1937, Maimonides has always been the central, premier Torah institution in all of New England, and more Torah is studied daily in our Yeshivah than in any other building in Massachusetts. It is because of our intense passion for Torah study, that it is fitting that we have been making up each of the Parshiot that might have been lost.
And so, this week, our two Parsha readings both feature curses – Ki Tavo features the 98 curses of Moses just prior to his passing, and Bechukotai the 49 curses given Har Sinai, for a total of 147 curses read in a marathon Torah reading this Shabbat. The two sets of curses are often juxtaposed and compared: narrative voice (Megillah 31b), severity (Bava Batra 88b, Rashi Devarim 28:23), and length (Midrash Tanchumah Nitzavim 1).
One of the oldest rules of setting the Torah reading schedule, appearing in the Talmud (Megilah 31b) and attributed to Ezra and the early second temple period, is that the curses are to be read in the penultimate week of the year, to convey a sense “May the year end with its curses.” We ironically read the harsh predictions of what might happen to the Jewish people not with a sense of anxiety or sadness, but with an optimistic view that perhaps all these curses are part of the destiny of last year, now beyond us. Perhaps for the upcoming year “Begin the new year with its blessings!”
5780 was a difficult people for all of us, in the Jewish people and in the entire world, and it is important to engage in a symbolic act to hope that the worst has passed us, so we can focus about renewed beginning and the blessings of a new year. We are hopeful that the year soon-to-begin will carry with it vaccines, cures, and health for all of humanity.
This week we will scream “Chazak, Chazak, Ve-Nitchazek”: Be strong! We have finally concluded are reading of Vayikra, we have finally complete this year’s Torah reading – and may we be strong moving forward into next year!
In the merit of the sense of completion and finally closing the circle of Torah readings, may the curses of the past year end, and may the new year bring for us only blessings.