As is typical of this kind of literature, the curses seem to outweigh the blessings not only in verse count, but in color of description as well. While later generations of Jews, horrified by the warnings of disaster, stipulated that this chapter be read in an undertone when it is a weekly public synagogue reading, it is fairly standard stuff in the context of ancient Near Eastern treaties.
- Everett Fox Torah
This week's parasha, Ki Tavo, contains one of the two sections with curses. While blessings seemingly balance them out there are more curses than there are blessings.
Our custom is to read these verses in one long aliyah in an undertone, when the Torah is read at Shabbat services. Some synagogues hold that the rabbi is invited to take the aliyah, because we do not want anyone to feel that he or she is deserving of the curses.
Does anyone really want to hear how God is going to curse us? Did our ancestors? What was the purpose of the section? Some modern movements have conveniently dropped the reading altogether. Yet, the tradition holds that we include the section in public Torah readings, and in Ashkenazic communities nearly whisper the entire passage.
Was any generation was ever comfortable hearing the curses fully voiced? The Talmud reveals that some communities or groups must have read the curses section full-throatedly. We even see one opinion in Rabbinic literature (that carries through the ages) that one should not discount or keep oneself from listening to the "chastening of the Lord." It was honorable in some communities to be the one to have the aliyah! Listening to these verses led to t'shuvah and even to a celebration - such a dark time had not befallen those who stood at the Torah and those who heard the reading.
One way of understanding the impact of the verses of curses is to think about them as reflecting worst-case scenarios, if we and humanity do not pursue the holiest endeavors possible. More on that at the end of the study.
Another way to make meaning of the reading is to recall the reception of the curses by our ancestors. In those dramatic moments when Moses spoke those words for the first time, generations of the past trembled and found strength to adopt a Torah way of living and a system of commandments to guide them. Some needed the fear-factor! Six tribes of Israel were atop one mountain and six were atop another. Moses, from the valley below, trumpeted the blessings and rained down the curses.
The dramatic presentation of blessings and curses brings home the message: "follow God's ways." Moses proclaimed: your culture must be guarded, your claim to the land protected. Be reminded, Moses told them, your behavior and choices may undermine your hold on the Promised Land. The ultimate message was: create a sacred community. Do not go rogue!
What meaning does this section hold for us? How do we read "ugly" curses and punishments that may arise, if we do not pursue God's commandments? As you read through the passage consider what seeing and hearing about worse-case scenarios means to you. What inspiration might we derive from being face with the potential downfall of our society?
Famously, four times more space is devoted to the curses than to the blessings. Historically, the implementation of the curses seemed much more imminent in the seventh century BCE than the fulfillment of the blessings. In any case, the chief function of the entire verbal enactment of this stupendous ceremony of blessings and curses is admonition, so it is not surprising that a long catalogue of bloodcurdling catastrophes far outweighs the list of happier events.
-Robert Alter Translation
What meaning can we derive from digesting this material and hearing it/reading it?
Now, about the way we physically read the passage:
TRADITION: FROM THE TALMUD - ONLY ONE READER
And then questions and reflections about the tone of the reading were raised:
Rabbi Ya`akov Sofer (Iraq, late 1800s-mid 1900s):
Likewise the Tokhehah passages in the Leviticus and in Deuteronomy and the list of curses in Ki-Tavo are generally read in an undertone, i.e., not as loud as one reads the rest of the parashah, but in any event loud enough to be heard. Pri Hadash sect. 7, and Mahatzit ha-Shekel, par. 8.
The Ari (16th C. Tzfat, Rabbi Yithak Luria) used to read to go up to the reader’s desk to read the passage of curses in Be-Hukotai, and would read them out loud, as is the practice in Sephardic communities. Some Yemenites also deliberately read the Tokhehah in full voice....
Rabbi Hayyim Falaji [(January 28, 1788– February 10, 1868) was a Jewish-Turkish chief rabbi of Smyrna (İzmir) and author in Ladino and Hebrew] was openly critical of those who read the curses sotto voce (in a quiet voice):
Some cantors have the practice of reading the passage of curses in a low voice; but in my view, according to my Kitzur, one ought to put an end to this practice since the person who is called up for the passage of curses is very punctilious and any little change made during his aliyah causes him sorrow such that after having been called up to the Torah and having recited the first benediction he then refuses [to remain] and wants to recite the concluding benediction in the middle of the reading.
TRADITION: "PTf-PTf-PTf": READ IT, BUT THEN DO SOMETHING TO COUNTERACT IT
The hazzan (prayer leader) recites a Mi She-Berakh (prayer for healing) for the congregation in addition to that which is recited after the haftarah (after Torah reading), and concludes this blessing with the words, “May the Lord change the curses into blessings, and may it thus be His will, and let us say: Amen.”
From the custom of some Bavarian communities, since at least mid 1700s:
May He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless so-and-so son of so-and-so for coming up for the aliyah of “whosoever wishes,”and for himself fulfilling the verse, “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; do not abhor His rebuke.” And it is said, “For the commandment is a lamp, the Teaching is a light, and the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines.”
May the Holy One, blessed be He, reward him for this by fulfilling the verse, “He whose ear heeds the discipline of life lodges among the wise,” and may He turn the curse to a blessing, and safeguard him from all hardship and distress, from all illness and disease, and grant him blessing and success in all his endeavors, and may he be blessed along with all his fellow Jews, and let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Juspa Shammes, who documented the practice of the Worms community in the 17th century, wrote:
On the Sabbath of Be-Hukotai, whoever so wishes is called up for the Tokhehah. And whosoever wishes to take that aliyah must also be called up on the first day of Shavuot. Likewise, whosoever wishes to be called up for Parashat Ki Tavo must also be called up on the first day of Rosh Hashana.
The Chasidic take:
Admor Rabbi Samuel of Sokhatshov (early 1900s):
Regarding the blessings and curses in our books, it follows from the holy Zohar and the New Zohar that underneath they are all blessings; indeed there are more blessings hidden in curses than blessings outwardly revealed… As with the creation of the world, which outwardly is a material world but contains an inner essence, it appears, … the inner essence of the world is entirely good, and only in the outward manifestations of the worlds is real bad, … It is well-known that everything that is secret and concealed has superior quality, therefore the blessings that are enveloped in the garb of curses are even more elevated… This explains why Ezra instituted that the blessings and curses be read on the Sabbaths preceding the Feast of Weeks and the New Year so that the old year and its curses come to an end… For it is well-known that reading the passage rouses the matter, and the curses as well are roused; and on the Sabbath, Israel absorbs the inner essence that the admonishments contain, which are instructive blessings, and the outer parts, which are curses, become annulled, and the old year and its curses come to an end… In this way, Israel prepares itself for the festival.
AND A FOLKTALE:
Elijah appeared and said: Arise, Rabbi Simeon, awaken from your slumber. How fortunate you are that the Holy One, blessed be He, is mindful of your honor. All the promises and consolation of Israel are written in these curses. Consider, when a king loves his son, although he might curse him and beat him nevertheless he loves him from the bottom of his heart. Thus, even though the Holy One, blessed be He, uttered curses, His words were said lovingly. Outwardly they appear as curses, but they are a great beneficence, since these curses were said lovingly.
...there are certain places where they compete one with another for the purchase of this aliyah, and the one who wins makes a great feast for the entire congregation at the synagogue. There are other places where a certain person might traditionally have the claim to this aliyah and no one else may take it from him. It is clear that whoever considers them blessings has the reward of all the hidden blessings in them being fulfilled for him. And conversely, whoever (Heaven forfend) considers them curses, brings on himself these curses just as one might tempt fate and in this regard it is said: what business have you prying into the secrets of the Merciful One?…and pleasantness will come to those who hear them, and they will be blessed with good.
Why do some human beings seem to thrive on consuming horrible news? Why are some hard-wired to see things fall apart or think "it will never work?" Does such energy lead to the formulation of solutions and other ideas about how to change the world for the better? Might inspiration come through the warnings people hear when bad news is reported and made accessible through the media? The propensity of some to focus on the negative or make others aware of worst-case scenarios may not be all bad. How will we know how to plan for the future, if we are not cognizant of what might fall apart or unravel? But those whose negativity leads them towards hatefulness and rejection of God dissemble relationships and cut themselves off from steady sources of inspiration. - Rabbi Scott N. Bolton
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat :
Some of us may struggle with the notion of a vengeful God Who would repay us for breaking faith in these ways. (That's certainly not my God-concept.) But what happens if we read the verse not prescriptively but descriptively? In other words: this isn't about what God will "do to us" if we turn away from the mitzvot. This is about the natural consequences of choosing to turn away from a path of holiness.
Does the idea of serving make us uncomfortable? Maybe we want to say, I'm nobody's servant -- I live for my own self! But in Torah's frame, that's an impossibility. Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: not so that we could be self-sufficient and serve our own needs, but so that we could enter into covenant with God and serve the Holy One.
Everyone serves something. That's a fact of human life. The question is what we will choose to serve, and how.
In Torah's understanding, either we can dedicate our lives to serving the Holy One of Blessing -- through the practice of mitzvot both ritual and ethical; through feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable; through cultivating gratitude for life's abundance; through working to rebuild and repair the world; through the work of teshuvah, turning ourselves around -- or we can turn our backs on all of that.
And if we turn our backs on all of that, says Torah, we will find ourselves serving a master who is cruel and uncaring. Maybe that master will be overwork. Maybe that master will be a political system that mistreats the immigrant and the refugee. Maybe that master will be whatever we use to numb ourselves to the brokenness around and within us.
In Torah's stark framing, either we can serve God or we can serve something else, and the inevitable fruits of serving something else will be disconnection and lack and facing down a slew of internal enemies.
What are the blessings we need in the new year?
Partial Sources & Links for Further reading
Multiple articles by Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Talbi on the traditions surrounding this portion.
History and traditions about dividing up aliyot
THE LAST ORAL TORAH?
THE DIVISION OF THE TORAH INTO ‘ALIYOT*
The Stopping Points in the Public Torah Reading
The Division of the Aliyahs in the Weekly Parsha