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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Ki Tavo                      September 21, 2019 - 21 Elul 5779

09/19/2019 05:50:40 PM


Yiddish is a colorful language.  There is no other language I know of in which a curse can sound like a blessing.  Here is a selection of curses from Nahum Stutchkoff's Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language:


  1. Ale tsores vos ikh hob oyf mayn hartsn, zoln oysgeyn tsu zayn kop.
              (All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head.)
  2. Eyn imglik iz far im veynik.
              (One misfortune is too few for him.)
  3. Khasene hobn zol er mit di malekh hamoves tokhter.
              (He should marry the daughter of the Angel of Death.)
  4. Oyf doktoyrim zol er dos avekgebn.
              (He should give it all away to doctors.)
  5. Zalts im in di oygen, feffer im in di noz.
              (Throw salt in his eyes, pepper in his nose.)
  6. Trinkn zoln im piavkes.
              (Leeches should drink him dry.)
  7. Gut zol oyf im onshikn fin di tsen makes di beste.
              (God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.)
  8. Ale tseyn zoln bay im aroysfaln, not eyner zol im blaybn oyf tsonveytung.
              (All his teeth should fall out except one to make him suffer.)
  9. Migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hengen, un bay nakht zol er brenen.
              (He should be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and to burn by night.)
  10. Zayn mazl zol im layhtn vi di levone in sof khoydesh.
              (His luck should be as bright as a new moon.)

Yet none of these curses are as threatening as those found in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo.  In this week’s Torah portion, the end draws near for Moses.  The journey is completed.  The Israelites have been reminded of their obligations to their people, their land, and their God.  Now Moses brings closure to 40 years of “people-building” with a ceremony of rewards & punishments.  If they follow God’s path of mitzvot, these will be their gains.  If they choose not to follow, these will be their losses.  The list of blessings and curses in Ki Tavo is interestingly unbalanced.  There are 55 verses of curse and only 14 verses of blessing!  What we have is a unique insight into human behavior and further evidence of God’s existence.

Rabbi Howard Siegel points out that humankind is not born with an innate sense of good.  Neither are we born with a natural inclination toward evil.  People are simply born! Unlike the animal world which is instinctively wired, humankind develops instincts based on background and environment.  An infant is born into an existence of complete selfishness.  Everything is done for him/her.  As the infant grows into adolescence, the child begins learning responsibility; not just for oneself, but for community, as well.  He/she learns how good and wonderful the world can be.  This alone does not compel the youngster to abandon his/her narcissistic roots.  Therefore, the parent/teacher instructs the child in the consequences of not assuming responsibility.

The Israelites, after 40 years of adolescence, prepare to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.  Like many children, they’ve learned their lessons the hard way.  Now, in a concluding ceremony, they are reminded if they want the blessings of a good place to live, children, wealth, and peaceful interaction with neighbors and friends, they’d better heed the words of the Torah; not to, could be disastrous.  The Torah portion reminds all of us that the good life is the result of taking obligation, responsibility and commitment seriously.  A colleague of mine was asked, “How do you know God exists?”  He responded, “There is no other way to explain why people choose to do good!” Our sense of responsibility, though not innate, is divinely-inspired!


                     Shabbat Shalom!

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780