Telephone Torah Study: Could the Curses be a Blessing?


A long list of curses punctuate this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (Deut. 26:1-29:8). We, like centuries of Jews before us, find these curses disturbing. Traditionally, they’re chanted quickly and at a whisper when read from the bima. Telephone Torah Study, This thursday, 4-5pm. To join in on the conference call, please dial 702-851-4044, when prompted punch in 2, then our pass code 22252#.

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Nina Wouk though points out the curses that appear early in the Torah portion can help us strengthen our inner conscience. ‘Private Feelings, Public Consequences,’ Wouk says, since many of these curses occur in private: “They constitute a sample list of crimes for which the only sure deterrent is inner. The ritual of publicly cursing certain acts was an attempt to implant into everyone who entered the land the seed of a conscience.” By God publically cursing private misdeeds, a refined inner conscience arises.

‘Private Feelings, Public Consequences’ by Nina Wouk for

Parashat Ki Tavo (“When You Come In”) is best known for its long and horrible list of curses, traditionally read in the synagogue quickly in an undertone.

It contains a series of threatened punishments for disobedience to G-d: drought, starvation, defeat in war; exile, slavery, massive slaughter; helpless witness of the suffering of loved ones; constant terror and despair.

This long list often overshadows a shorter catalog of curses that occur earlier in the parasha. The more famous curses will be inflicted by G-d personally. The short list comprises curses that the people bring upon themselves if they commit certain acts.

Moses, instructing the people in the proper rituals for entering the Land after his death, tells them to divide the leaders of the tribes into two groups, to stand on two adjacent mountains. Those on the first mountain are to pronounce a list of twelve blessings; the other group pronounces an equal list of conditional curses. Cursed be the man who secretly makes an idol, they are to say, and the entire people are to answer “Amen.”

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Torah Passage of the Week

[Adonai] led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet; you had no bread to eat and no wine or other intoxicant to drink—that you might know that I Adonai am your God. (Deut. 29:4-5)

Portion Summary

Moses instructs the people of Israel: When you enter the land that G‑d is giving to you as your eternal heritage, and you settle it and cultivate it, bring the first-ripened fruits (bikkurim) of your orchard to the Holy Temple, and declare your gratitude for all that G‑d has done for you.

Our Parshah also includes the laws of the tithes given to the Levites and to the poor, and detailed instructions on how to proclaim the blessings and the curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival—as discussed in the beginning of the Parshah of Re’eh. Moses reminds the people that they are G‑d’s chosen people, and that they, in turn, have chosen G‑d.

The latter part of Ki Tavo consists of the Tochachah (“Rebuke”). After listing the blessings with which G‑d will reward the people when they follow the laws of the Torah, Moses gives a long, harsh account of the bad things—illness, famine, poverty and exile—that shall befall them if they abandon G‑d’s commandments.

Moses concludes by telling the people that only today, forty years after their birth as a people, have they attained “a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.”

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