It’s late September, and it’s a nervous time of year. Haunting reminders of 9/11, exhausting political campaigns, a new school year, continued global and local unrest, dispute, war, refugees.
And perhaps we’re more unsettled than usual in late September, not because of real and perceived concerns, but also because we’ve not yet entered, as we usually have by now, a new year on the Jewish calendar, not yet experienced, as we will in a little over a week, the calming influence of the open invitation that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the aptly named Days of Awe — offer to us each year.
But, really, could our times be more anxiety-inducing than the times we’ve been reading about during these past few weeks as we make our way through our annual reading of the Book of Deuteronomy? For weeks now, we’ve been listening to Moses, very near the end of his life, giving a long talk to the newer generation of Israelites — the ones still alive as the 40-year journey draws to a close, the ones born in the vast refugee camp of the wilderness, the ones who will soon enter the Promised Land, the first homeland they have ever known.
Moses speaks to them (and to us) as though they and we had been with him all along: enslaved in Egypt, walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea, standing together witnessing God’s revelations at Sinai, journeying four decades in this wilderness. And indeed, any time we open the book/scroll to read another passage, we are there with him. He speaks to us directly, saying, “You have seen all that God did before your very eyes … ” (Deuteronomy 29:1).
As we enter this week’s portion, Ki Tavo (meaning “when you enter”), we are met with yet another litany of blessings and curses from Moses. If you “listen to the voice of Adonai your God,” says Moses, all these blessings will come to you (Deuteronomy 28:2). “But if you do not listen to the voice of Adonai your God to observe faithfully all God’s commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day,” these many curses will befall you (Deuteronomy 28:15).
What is Moses up to? We know he’s not running for president, even though his message sounds like some recent campaign speeches.
Different people learn differently. Some learn to be good in response to threats of punishment; some by virtue of rewards promised; and some people just are good or not good. Moses knows he is speaking to all sorts of people. With little time left to get his message across, he urgently tries various techniques.
But no matter how many times we hear the curses in these last chapters of Deuteronomy (Devarim), they disturb and disconcert. We’re not alone in our discomfort. Some Jewish communities try to ameliorate the horrifying lists of curses — which include plagues and sicknesses, anguished hearts and despondent spirits — by whispering them at public readings. Tradition also calls for adults, rather than our b’nai mitzvah students, to read these passages during a Torah service.
What are these curses doing here besides terrifying us? Why might we be asked to encounter them year after year?
Near the end of Ki Tavo comes a cryptic verse. Moses, in reminding the Israelites that they’ve seen all the amazing things the Eternal has done, adds, “Yet until this day, God has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:3).
“Until this day.” Each year, each time we read this, we get to hear that message. And we always read it, always get this message, on this Shabbat, the sixth of the seven Sabbaths of consolation, these seven weeks building us up from the sorrows and destruction of Tisha b’Av to the power of Rosh Hashanah, with its message of rebirth, when anything is possible. We read this verse in the midst of our preparation for the Days of Awe, this season of self-reflection, of turning and returning to our own souls, our own selves.
Each year when we get to this verse, we can ask ourselves once again: Am I here? Have I indeed arrived at the day when my heart understands, my eyes see, my ears hear?
This year, may we make our way through the fright and leave it behind.
This year, may the blessings come true.
May the threats and curses vanish, banished by the work of our hands and hearts.
This year, may each of us accept Judaism’s invitation to become the person we want to be, the person God wants us to be, and together may we fulfill the words of the Psalmist: Turn from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15).