Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat-Ki Tavo 5760

Catalog of Calamities

(to the tune of "Tiptoe thru the Tulips") 

"Tiptoe, through Ki Tavo.
Don't read loudly,
Lest the curses that we
read will all come True and bring doom.

When you're called to read it,
they won't even call you by your real name
Tiptoe through Ki Tavo real fast.

it's really a lot
Curses, it's all that we got
as we go

Tiptoe, through Ki Tavo
and the curse words
add up to six-two-six
which spells out the words "evil stuff."


It is the custom in many places to read quietly and quickly through the voluminous curses in parashat Ki Tavo. Gd forbid such horrors should befall us.

That's us, our modern sensibilities. Avoid anything unpleasant. And for certain don't let the little kinder hear about all this.

Our tradition teaches us that not one single word, not one little jot or tittle in our Torah is there by accident. Yet we avoid this particular set of verses, all 626 words (which, the mystics tell us, is the numerical equivalent of ra-ot, evilness or evil things) like the plague. We tiptoe through it, so we don't wake up the demons waiting to devour us at a moment's notice.

Now, I must admit, in all honesty, that the language and imagery of these curses is pretty strong, and some of it is not particularly suitable for young minds. For that matter, some isn't particularly suitable for old minds.

Yet we are clearly instructed to diligently teach these laws, our holy Torah, to our children. If we expunge all the awfulness out of the curses, does their message really come through? I wonder.

Only decades separate us from the Shoah. Yet already there are voices raised, from both without and within the Jewish community: enough already. There are debates raging as to whether graphic depictions of the horrors of the Shoah are necessary as an educational tool and deterrent.

Well, to both parashat Ki Tavo and to graphic depictions of the horrors of the Shoah I say: bring 'em on.

Weaken the words of the Torah and you weaken the strength of the Jewish people. Speak them truthfully, and you save the Jewish people.

Now, I'm not advocating going out and reading (and translating) all 626 words in clear language to young children. But I also don't think it's enough to say something that glosses over the reality like: "well, there's a whole lot of really nasty and bad stuff in there that says what might happen to the Israelites if they don't follow Gd's mitzvot." Somewhere between that and a word for word translation of D'varim 28:53 (you can look it up on your own) is called for. Enough to make anyone hearing these words understand their great import, and the strong warning message they send.

I think another reason we fear these words is that many of us, perhaps far too many, believe that these calamities have already befallen us for our centuries of being a stubborn, intransigent and disobeying people. I believe this is a misinterpretation. If the curses of Ki Tavo seem strong in our own time, imagine how much stronger they would have been to our ancestors. The implication is-some pretty bad stuff is going to happen to you if you don't remain faithful to Gd and follow Gd's commandments. Well yes, some pretty bad stuff has happened to us, but we are still here. From the strength of the curses in Ki Tavo, I imagine our fate would have been even worse were we totally without redemptive value! For does not verse 20 say that we will be totally eliminated, wiped out, as it were?

I think Samson Raphael Hirsch got it right when he spoke of how to handle the curses of Ki Tavo. He reminds us that all these curses are conditional, and that this ultimate catastrophe would not come without complete and total failure of every Jew to uphold the commandments-and this, he says, has not yet been the case.

And in this lies the value of teaching even these most troubling of verses to our children, to our congregants, to everyone. For if there is to forever be a remnant whose piety sustains the whole of the Jewish people, it is up to all of us to insure it. And one way we can do this is to embrace the difficult words of Ki Tavo, teaching our children that they must be forever on guard to follow Gd's way and Gd's commandments, lest these horrible fates and perhaps even worse ones befall the entire Jewish people, wiping us off the face of the earth.

Negativity and fear, say many, are not good motivators (or, at least, not really healthy ones to use.) I'm not totally convinced of this, but I'll accept the basic premise that positive reinforcement is probably a superior methodology. So how can I advocate using the curses of Ki Tavo as a motivator? It is because the fear is not to be that of one human fearing for their own self, but rather fearing for others, for the whole Jewish people, the whole world. And that, chaverim, is love. To love others so much that you fear for their future is a love worthy of our covenant. Could there be a more positive motivator than that?

Shabbat Shalom,


©  2000 by Adrian A. Durlester

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