Blessings and curses are front and center in this week’s Torah reading Ki Tavo.
Why did Ezra the Scribe believe it was critical that the Jewish People read these blessings and curses before Rosh Hashanah?
As we turn the corner on the calendar, we also have an opportunity for a new start and to make our covenant with God flourish.
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At the start of the this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Israelites in the wilderness are asked to imagine all the blessings they will receive inside the Land of Israel, if they fulfill their part of the deal with God.
At the end of the parasha, those same Israelites are threatened with 54 verses of curses detailing the punishments awaiting them, “if you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching.” (Deuteronomy 28:58)
The Talmud, in Tractate Megillah, tells us that Ezra the Scribe decreed that, for all time, the Jewish people would read the blessings and curses of our parsha before Rosh Hashanah (BT Megillah 31b).
Jews of the Land of Israel, who in ancient times completed the cycle of Torah reading in three years, wouldn’t read these threatening chapters before Rosh Hashana each year, as we do. They probably would have had to take out a second Torah scroll and read the curses in addition to the parasha of the week.
Why did Ezra believe it was critical that the Jewish people read the blessings and curses before Rosh Hashanah?
One explanation comes from the Rabbi Abaye in the Talmud, who says, “So that the year may end along with its curses.” As we finish the year, we read all of the curses, putting them behind us, as if to say, so should our troubles be behind us. They should end and after that, we can begin the new year with a clean slate.
Maybe the reason why I like this explanation is because it is hard for me to accept the theological nexus of cause and effect behind these verses. It is similar to the behavior of parents, who present their child with the consequences of his or her actions. I don’t think it ever works, and I don’t think Jewish people took it too seriously, whether it is right or wrong.
Abaye is just an example of someone trying to give a different explanation. However, we found our own way. What Jewish people know best is how to create “the factories of Bilaam,” in the language of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, to turn the curses into blessings.
In tractate Ta’anit (20a), the rabbis take verses from Megillat Eicha and prophets that describe our troubles after the destruction of the Temple and in the most creative ways turn them into blessings.
That’s the art I admire in our Jewish peoplehood, the art that makes our covenant with God flourish.
I will end with the verses from piyut (liturgical poem) written by Avraham Hazzan Gerundi, the 13th-century Spanish rabbi, entitled “Ahot Ketanah,” Little Sister.
The little sister, her prayers,
she arranges, and her praises she recites.
Please, God, heal her illnesses now.
May the year and its curses come to an end!
Be strong and rejoice,
And you shall ascend to Zion.
And He shall declare:
“Clear! Clear! Her paths.”
May the New Year and its blessings begin! And I will add, may we have an ability to turn the curses, if they come, into blessings.
Shavua Tov from Schechter.
Irina Gritsevskaya is the General Director of Midreshet Schechter. She holds a LL.B. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a LL.M. from Bar Ilan University and MA in Jewish Thought from the JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Tel Aviv.