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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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.