Parashat Ki Tavo

Private Feelings, Public Consequences

The activities for which people are cursed by God directly are those committed in secret; Moshe therefore attempts to help the Children of Israel cultivate their inner consciences.

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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."

Cursed Activities

In their entirely, the twelve cursed activities are these: secret idolatry; insulting one's father or mother; moving the boundary marker between fields; misleading a blind person; subverting the rights of a stranger, widow or orphan; sex between a man and his father's wife; sex between a man and an animal; sex between a man and his sister; sex between a man and his wife's mother; a stealthy violent attack; accepting a bribe in the spilling of innocent blood; and failure to "uphold this teaching."

Why are these particular acts proclaimed, immediately upon entry to the promised land, as the ones to be avoided under penalty of being cursed? What do they all have in common?

Generations of commentators have noted that these are acts committed in secret, either alone or with complicit or powerless others, often by powerful people able to deflect the reach of the law. 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.

Any community, with even the best set of rules, can be subverted if the rules are obeyed in the letter only. The history of the American South shows how the courts and the jury system served for decades to criminalize any act by a black person and decriminalize any killing of a black person. Attempts to legally protect private adult sexual relationships; or to secure the family status of children of gay, bisexual or queer parents; or to prosecute killers of gay, bisexual or queer people show the same pattern. Laws create only the possibility of justice; justice can only be realized fully through the will of those who carry out the laws.

Since no community works without people whose hearts are in making it work, Moses tries to develop people who look into, care about, and develop their own hearts. As he says at the end of Parashat Ki Tavo, G-d didn't give you eyes to see or hearts to understand until today. Even trying to do the right thing is treacherously difficult without a clear inward gaze. Thus the climax of his speech provides a ritual for developing that vital self-consciousness.

To be socially effective, self-consciousness must be combined with a clear idea of right action. Moses tries to accomplish this by listing the twelve exemplary acts of secret wrongdoing, as a reminder of many detailed categories of wrongdoing, secret and public. By making people consider themselves cursed for doing wrong even before no mortal witness, he hopes to assure that they will, under pressure, find the inner strength to do right.

When the Israelites were about the receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, they cried in unison Naaseh v'nishmah, "we will do and we will understand." This is often interpreted to mean that doing leads to understanding. But the Torah itself, through the cursing ritual of Parashat Ki Tavo, tells us differently: Understanding is its own kind of doing, and success in achieving a just society depends on our making the effort to understand both the laws and ourselves. 

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Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.