Curses: Parshat Ki-Tavo

Blessing, Curse Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Blue Sky and Clouds.

     The villagers of Shalom Alechem’s Anetevka have a talent for comedic curses. When they are told that the Jews of a neighboring town have been forced from their homes due to the corruption of the Tzar, or perhaps a plague, someone shouts:  “May the Tzar have his very own plague.” When they are informed of the most recent edict from the authorities someone cries: “May the authorities grow like onions, their heads in the ground.” When a communist romantic, a newcomer to town, declares that “money is the world’s curse,” Tevye the Milkman retorts: “May God smite me with it and may I never recover!” Yet in the midst of all the sardonic humor lies a serious question. Fed up with all the pithy protests, the young communist asks: “What good will your cursing do?” An interesting question: What good does cursing do? What purpose does it serve? What does it say about the person making the curse and its intended target?
     This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, provides a list of curses so harsh, so graphic and so frightening that many communities have developed a practice of reciting them in a faint whisper. In this way, one can fulfill the commandment of reading the passage without having to worry too much about bringing the curses upon themselves by failing to do so. We have to read it, but reading it with a good strong voice is asking for trouble. Even we Reform Jews, who eschew superstition, and the evil eye, cringe at reading these verses aloud. Of course we reject superstition…but why tempt fate?
     Think about the expression: “I don’t wish ill on anyone.” It’s a perfect example of affirmation by negation. Yes, in fact, we do wish ill on any number of people. The rational part of our mind knows that there is no material or direct consequence in doing so, but the emotional part of our mind feels badly about doing it anyway. What we really mean when we say: “I don’t wish ill on anyone,” is that we want to be affirmed and appreciated for our anger and resentment, even if the rational part of our mind knows full well we should have gotten over it already. We feel badly about wishing bad things on people. Therefore, we want to be told that we shouldn’t feel badly about harboring these sentiments. We want to hear that the people who hurt us deserve our ill will and that there is no verifiable correlation to bad things actually happening to those we resent anyway.
     Yet, if wishing someone ill is perfectly harmless, why do we criticize each other for doing it? If someone we love says of someone who has angered them:  “I hope he drops dead,” we tell them “you don’t really mean that.” Perhaps our rational tendency is trying to keep our irrational tendency from saying things we might live to regret. If we wish someone ill, and as fate would have it, something terrible befalls them, then we might end up feeling guilty or ashamed about the act of wishing. Warning someone against rash statements is basically warning them to “be careful what you wish for.” Oscar Wilde ironically quipped that there are ultimately just “two tragedies in life:  one is not getting what you want and the other is getting it.” What happens when the fate you wanted to befall someone actually befalls them?
     Torah says that the formula for a good life is very clear. Obedience to God’s laws will bring blessings. Disobedience will bring curses. Real life tells us that this one to one relationship, this total correspondence between doing good things and getting good things is not always the case. Good fortune can happen to those who do horrible things and horrible luck can happen to people who do good things. So, if Torah knows that we’re not likely to buy it, why does Torah say it?
     Perhaps the point is to remind us that despite the fact that so many things are beyond our control, we still bear responsibility for our decisions. We still have agency. Even impoverished, oppressed and abused people make some degree of choices, all be it admittedly from a terrible and narrow list of options. The world is a frightening place and the ancient world was even more so. Remember that in a world devoid of the forms of communication we take for granted, far more things happened without warning. The time to prepare, the resources to respond that we rely upon were simply not available. Rather than depriving people of agency, Ki-Tavo, is trying to develop it. In a world without photo i.d. electronic surveillance, audio and video recordings, and digital records, the only real accountability one had was oneself. You may think that no one sees, that no one knows, that no one hears, that no one cares, but you’d be wrong about that. God, Freud would argue, is a form of integrity, a disciplined superego, who demands that we make decisions based not upon what we can get away with, but by what conscience expects of us, even when what conscience tells us to do is no fun.
     The Talmud is well aware that many, if not most, things are beyond our control, yet it demands constant self-control. “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of heaven.” We don’t choose our foundational circumstances: gender, race, class, sexuality, health, religion, and so on, but we can make some choices about what to do with them.
     As we prepare to enter the High Holy Day season, let us remember that these are the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Let us look upon the world and one another not merely from a perspective of what we like or don’t like, want or don’t want, what we find exciting or boring, worthwhile or worthless. Rather, let us broaden our perspective to include what others want, what others like, what others value. We are entitled to our opinions, but our opinions are not the be all and end all of existence. To behold the world in awe is to restrain our tendency for cursing and rediscover our talent for blessing.
Kein Ye’hee Ratzon—May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.
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