One of the favorite songs sung on Simchat Torah is the Piyyut “Mi Pi El” in which it is declared: “There is no greatness like the Torah and no interpreters of it like Israel!” (“אין גדולה כתורה ואין דורשיה כישראל”).
The annual cycle of Torah reading, which began in Babylonia some 1,500 years ago, engendered the celebration of Simchat Torah. More profoundly, the annual cycle has contributed, as per the song Mi Pi El, to the Torah’s greatness and to the Jewish talent for expounding it. Returning to the same verses and stories every year, we often find in them new meanings that reflect the events of our own lives and times, while connecting to our past through a dialogue with the Torah’s greatest interpreters through the ages.
One of those great interpreters was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in 19th century Germany. One of Hirsch’s comments provided for me an insight into one of the most important cultural phenomena of the past year – the #metoo movement. In Rabbi Hirsch’s brief explanation of a set of verses in the Torah Portion “Ki Tavo” that we read just a few weeks ago, I found some reason for optimism: the ethical vision of Torah may just have a chance in our society!
In Chapter 27 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Children of Israel to conduct a mass ceremony in Shechem (today’s Nablus), in which half the people are commanded to face Mt. Eyval and recite a series of curses, and half to face Mt. Gerizim and pronounce a series of blessings. The ceremony, for which reasonable archaeological evidence actually exists, was described in the Book of Joshua, Ch. 8.
There is also a detailed series of twelve curses shouted out by the Levites, after each of which the entire People respond “Amen”. An examination of these curses will find that their messages are surprisingly relevant to us in 2018, and that after more than 3,000 years, human society continues to inflict on itself the same curses that were recited as a challenge to the Children of Israel entering the Land.
The word “in secret” accompanies the first and the tenth of the twelve curses, which Hirsch took that to mean that ALL of the curses are really transgressions that people commit in secret, behind closed doors, very difficult to prove in court, and often there is nothing left to do but curse the person who commits them. The curses contain the bad stuff we all know: following the false idols of wealth, celebrity and ideology; taking lightly the respect due to parents and the elderly; disrespecting the property or person of neighbors; discriminating against the disadvantaged, or the disabled; initiating sexual contact with members of immediate and extended family. The last of these categories is particularly destructive to individuals, family and community, and it comprises three of the twelve curses.
I have therefore been encouraged that in the past year, thanks to #metoo, sexual predation has come out from the dark places that hid the truth from justice. Victims told their stories and released the pain they had carried with them for years or decades, not to mention the damage done to their families, workplaces, and communities. Many serial transgressors no longer enjoy the immunity that accompanies power combined with a victim’s fear of revenge and humiliation. Some predators were forced to resign from positions of influence, and in other cases they woke up, publicly apologized and are seeking help to change their ways. Yes, many remain unrepentant and in positions of power, but they will think twice now before acting out.
The New Year brings with it hope for a future in which online transparency and support for victims who speak out may bring blessings to people and places that in the past knew only curses.