This week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo, is full of both blessings and curses. The curses are vivid and frightening, and one rabbi referred to them as 55 consecutive verses of nightmarish misery and torture. Many of those curses have to do with our being dispersed as a people, our being unmoored, either physically or psychologically. We are cursed with confusion and bewilderment, which Rashi translates literally as a “clogging of the heart.” We are told that “you will grope at midday, as the blind man gropes in the dark.” Ki Tavo tells us that the strong and high walls and fortresses of our cities will all collapse, and I can’t help but think that this is meant in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense because we no longer have any real bearings. Ki Tavo even threatens us with insanity: “You will go insane”—the Hebrew word used here is MESHUGAH—and that “you will be in fear in your life.” You will have a trembling heart, dashed hopes, and you will not be calm. To me, one of the worst curses is that “you will not be able to believe that this is your life.” Rambam says that the worst is that no one will even want to buy you as slaves.
There is a lot of tradition related to this Parsha. One is that the curses are read very quietly and very quickly—the obvious message here is that no one wants to spend much time on these terrible threats. There’s a story that the son of a rabbi had to laen Ki Tavo one Shabbat when his father was ill. The son later had to be hospitalized for shock and high blood pressure. The people asked him, “You hear this Parsha every year. Why would it affect you now?” And he answered, “When my father reads it, I can’t hear the curses.” Another tradition is that a number of rabbis take the curses and try to argue that they have all come true for the Jewish people. Some rabbis even single out the Holocaust and claim that Ki Tavo predicts it.
This portion is also known as the tochechah, or rebuke. It is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah and is intended to alert us to the realities of life so that we can do some soul-searching and introspection in order to improve our behavior before the coming Days of Judgment.
It’s incredible that Ki Tavo represents almost the very last words that Moshe will share with the Jewish people. And there are only 14 lines of blessings, in contrast with the 55. But, no matter what we think about why these curses are so lengthy and so harsh, we cannot ignore the fact that we are still here today and our enemies have not destroyed us and scattered our ashes to the winds. We can still experience the joys we associate with Judaism, however challenging it may be to be a good Jew.
As Moshe tells the Israelites, only today—after forty years in the desert have they attained a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.
And may it be so for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman