Which do you choose — blessings or curses?


As we journey through the month of Elul, it is customary to comment on the weekly Torah portions in light of the upcoming Days of Awe. Parshat Ki Tavo is
read a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and its overriding theme is one that we encounter several times during the High Holy Days: blessing vs. curse.

“And all of these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you, if you listen to the word of God” (Deuteronomy 28:2) Moses says as his introduction to a beautiful description of blessings presented as a reward for following the covenant with God. By way of contrast, Moses also warns: “If you will not listen to the voice of God … all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15), and for the next 53 verses Moses describes a list of dark and devastating curses as punishment for abandoning the word of God.

This “blessing vs. curse” motif, so prevalent on the High Holy Days, is uniquely expressed in Sephardic customs. For instance, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy opens the evening service with a poem whose refrain is “May this year and all of its curses come to an end, and may this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.”

When we come home from Arvit, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is the rooting out of curse and the aspiration for blessing. We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for “tear up” is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will “tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God.”

We eat pieces of a fish or lamb’s head, and in a blessing lifted straight from Moses’ blessings in this week’s parasha, we say “May we always be the head, and not the tail” (see Deuteronomy 28:13 — “And God will make you the head, and not the tail”).

One of the most popular expressions of “blessing vs. curse” on the High Holy Days is the image of God seated with two books open before Him: The Book of Life (Blessing) and the Book of Death (Curse). Our liturgy says “Oh God, the Books of Life and Death are opened before You today.”

In the Sephardic tradition, as an expression of alienating ourselves from curses, the custom is that when the hazzan chants this prayer, he changes it to “Oh God, the Good Book of Life is open before You today.”

I guess we assume that God does not have a High Holy Days machzor, or, perhaps it is the outgrowth of another custom, one associated with this week’s parasha. When reading the sixth aliyah, which begins with the blessings and then transitions into the curses, the custom is that when the curses begin, the hazzan lowers his voice and reads the entire lengthy section in a whispering voice. As much as the “Book of Death” or the curses are clear and present in the machzor and in the Torah, it’s unpleasant to chant them in a loud voice.

Throughout Moses’ dark description of curses, the theme of enemies is prevalent. This, too, is part of the curses we wish to obliterate on Rosh Hashanah.

Around the same Sephardic table, the Rosh Hashanah seder also includes dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say “She-yitamu oyvenu” (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu — consumed — sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say “She-yikartu oyvenu” (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu — cut off — sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say “She-yisalku oyvenu” (May our enemies disappear; yisalku — disappear — sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life’s most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.

The section describing the blessings continuously repeats the word mitzvot, associating the performance of God’s commandments (mitzvot) with a life of blessing. The Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder concludes with this theme, as we eat pomegranate seeds and sesame seeds mixed with sugar, both prefaced by saying “May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds” or “May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds and sweet as sugar.”

This fitting end to the seder is a reflection of our deepest yearnings to live a life filled with the blessings that can come when performing God’s mitzvot.

As I read this parasha going into the High Holy Days, I feel blessed with many things, one of which is my rich Sephardic heritage. Even if you’re not Sephardic, you might want to try bringing these blessings into your own home. It’s certainly more diverse than a mere apple dipped in honey.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Exploring Past Finds Power of Choices


The Hebrew language is not famous for its curse words. There
is one, however, emach she’mo, meaning, “may his name be erased.”

In our tradition, it is a horrible curse to be erased from
human memory. For example, Hitler, emach she’mo: Even as we remember him, we
remember to forget him. Those who evoke our most horrible memories are those
who most deserve to be forgotten.

Conversely, what happens if we take deserving people from
our personal past and return them to human memory? What happens when we can
identify people about whom we knew little or nothing and make the effort to
flesh out their lives, study the choices they made and learn from the
challenges they faced? Doesn’t this process bless our ancestors for being
remembered and bless us for pulling those memories out from history’s ashes?

These are some of the questions that inspired me when I
first discussed this exhibit with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
in 1996. About two minutes into my pitch, he stopped me and said, “Let’s make
it happen.” And, for the next six years and more than a quarter-million miles,
I had the privilege of searching for the ancestors of Maya Angelou, Billy
Crystal, Carlos Santana, Joe Torre and others.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the further back in time
we go among culturally diverse people, the less these people have in common.
Our experience was quite different.

The power of certain commonly shared values seemed to grow
stronger as we went back in time. The narratives, documents and images from all
these families painted a picture of people who associated their joy — even
their own sense of identity — with acts of giving and self-sacrifice.

My journey was fascinating and sometimes humorous.

I arrived in Italy wearing rimless glasses, a closely
cropped beard and a Universal Studios cap. In Petina, Joe Torre’s ancestral
family home near the Amalfi Coast, people stopped me on the street with bottles
of homemade raspberry liquor. They insisted that we drink a toast because noi
amiamo i suoi film, what I eventually learned to mean, “we love your movies.” A
rumor had spread among the locals that I was Steven Spielberg.

For Jews living in the 21st century, it may not seem
newsworthy to admire non-Jewish wisdom. To do so, however, with the specific
intention of performing a mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) and recognizing a Jewish
value, is a truly humbling experience. Listening to Dr. Maya Angelou’s powerful
insights gave me an opportunity to say the Hebrew blessing that ends, “Who has
given his knowledge to human beings.”

My grandmother told me many stories about her family in the
Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, and how they overcame great hardships and
challenges. This memory was most powerfully rekindled while researching the
life of Margaret Torre (Joe’s mother) in Italy. There is a Chasidic folk
saying, “Be a master of your will and a servant of your conscience.” Margaret
Torre may not have been familiar with the expression, but this is how she
lived.

In Mexico, Carlos Santana’s aunts spoke about the meaning of
family and the importance of giving back to the world. Sitting in their parlor
in a tiny village near Manzanillo, I realized I could have been in Los Angeles,
Brooklyn or Jerusalem.

Carlos’ mother is a heroic figure who reminds us of
America’s debt to the courage of immigrants. The message is clear: We have the
power and responsibility to transform our lives, reminding me of Anne Frank’s
writing: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before
starting to improve the world.”

By now, it should be clear that one of the reoccurring
themes in “Finding Our Families Finding Ourselves” is the power of choices.
Nothing shapes our lives as powerfully as the choices we make.

There are many bad jokes about the seductive power of the
entertainment industry and “what it does” to people. Janice and Billy Crystal —
with whom I have had the privilege of working for many years thanks to Los
Angeles’ own Dr. David and Andrea Sherman — are a convincing and reassuring
reminder that people are who they choose to be, regardless of external
circumstances.

While the exhibit explores the typical “how-to” questions of
the genealogical quest, it also addresses the “why-to” part of the experience.
Who can we become when we learn more about how we came to be? I wish you great
success on your journey. Â


Rafael Guber is founder of the Sepia Guild, a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors” and co-creator of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves.”