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D'var Torah: Ki Tavo

As our year based on KI’s theme “Telling Jewish Stories” comes to an end, I thought I’d do some last storytelling to illustrate a really difficult part of the Torah.

The Tokhacha, “admonitions,” is one of the most chilling parts of the Torah; the version in today’s reading is a longer version of a shorter one we read last May in parashat B’hukkotai at the end of Vayikra. Some of the curses here are pretty awful; some of them are worse than any in B’hukkotai; for this reason the Torah “leiner” is instructed to read these verses quickly and in a hushed voice, but one still audible to the congregation.

Much commentary has been written about these curses and why such a litany of awful stuff was placed in the Torah—in two places, even—but I want to explore these curses using an unusual approach. I pose a paradox: What if a curse isn’t really a curse but only sounds like one? You might object and say that these curses in the Torah are real curses—and that’s how every commentator treats them. But what if we’re missing something and aren’t understanding them properly?

Let’s go into story-telling mode and explore different kinds of curses—bad things happening to good people and pronouncements that sound bad but aren’t—in a light-hearted way. To do that, I’ll tell some stories about bad stuff—bad events and bad words—and see how we can turn the tables on curses by looking at them through a different lens.

Noah Levinson suffered through a really awful day; absolutely everything he did went wrong! So after he said his evening Shema, he added a personal thought to his prayer, asking God what he did to deserve such a bad day, of course not expecting any answer. Boy, was he ever surprised.

Hashem: Noah!

Noah: ... um ... somebody call?

Hashem: Noah!

Noah: Who is that!?

Hashem: It’s the LORD, Noah!

Noah: Rrrright. Where are ya? Whatta ya want? I’ve been good... [Oops—wrong Noah story; let’s see...]

Noah (sighing): Oh, Lord, why did you let so much stuff happen to me today?

Hashem (forcefully but quietly): What do you mean, “stuff,” Noah?

Noah: Who is this really? I’m NOT that Noah! And I can’t channel Bill Cosby, either!

Hashem: Noah? Spit it out!

Noah: Oh, Lord, I never thought you’d answer my ... um ... everything happened today—promise you won't get mad?

Hashem: I promise. What’s the problem? What “stuff” do you mean?

Noah: Well, I overslept and woke up late...

Hashem: Yes...

Noah: Then my car took forever to start...

Hashem: That’s right.

Noah (a little louder): At lunch, they made my sandwich all wrong and I had to wait; almost was late for a really important meeting.

Hashem: Okay—

Noah: When I was going home, my iPhone went dead just as I picked up a call.

Hashem: Correct.

Noah (miserably): And to top it all off, when I got home, I just wanted to soothe my aching feet in my foot massager, but it wouldn't turn on. Nothing went right today! Why did you do all that?

Hashem: Well, Noah, let me see. Early this morning Ha-satan hacked into the Book of Life and scrambled the database; then the angel of death mistakenly downloaded your name and went to get you. We immediately restored the files from the backups and noticed that it wasn’t your time, so I had to rush one of the other angels to your bedroom to stop him from taking you. The angel of death is kind of hard to persuade. So I let you sleep through that ruckus.

Noah (shocked): Oy vey...

Hashem: I kept your car from starting because there was a drunk driver on your route who would have hit you if you had left home when you were ready.

Noah: Oh my <gulp>...

Hashem: The person who messed up your sandwich today was coming down with the flu; I didn't want you to catch it since I knew you couldn’t afford to miss work. A healthy person made your correct lunch instead.

Noah (embarrassed): Oh...

Hashem: I drained your phone battery because the caller was going to lie about what you told him to do for that trial you’re preparing for, so I made him think you couldn’t be contacted; that way you avoided a serious legal mess.

Noah (softly): Um, well, I...

Hashem: Oh, right, that foot massager, it had a short and would have given your foot a really nasty burn.

Noah (humbly): Oh, I’m so sorry for questioning you, Lord.

Hashem: Don’t be sorry, Noah, your lesson is that sometimes things that look like curses may really be blessings.

That explains blessings masquerading as bad events, right? Okay, now how could verbal curses really be viewed as blessings? To see how a curse may actually be a blessing, one needs to either be quite creative or have a special insight that allows thinking beyond the words of the curse. Fortunately Jewish lore provides just this necessary creativity and insight; to find it we simply need to bring in ... you got it ... a midrash. If you hunt in the midrash literature carefully, you can find almost anything, like this story, which comes from the Talmud1. I’ll paraphrase the story here.

Some noted sages were visiting the school of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. When they were about to depart, he told his son, Rabbi Elezer, to seek their blessings. R. Elezer went to them. After listening to a few minutes of their talmudic debate, he conveyed his father’s request for their blessing. They replied:

“May it be Hashem’s will that you sow and not reap. May you bring in merchandise that you can never part with. May you buy merchandise that you can never bring home. May your home be destroyed and you be forced to dwell in a lodging house. May your table be disturbed, and may you never experience a groom’s first year of joy.”

R. Elezer returned to his father in dismay.

“They didn’t bless me,” he said, shocked at their words. “Not only that, they cursed me relentlessly.”

“Maybe you didn’t understand. What did they tell you?”

When his son repeated their words, Rabbi Shimon exclaimed happily: “Don’t worry. These are all blessings: ‘That you sow and not reap’ implies that the children that you and your wife will have, will outlive you and you will not witness their death. ‘Bring in merchandise that you can never part with’ refers to your future daughters-in-law. They blessed you that they will enter your sons’ homes and never leave.

“‘Buy merchandise that you can never bring home’ refers to your future sons-in-law. They blessed your daughters so that they will remain happily married and never have to return home. ‘Your destroyed home’ refers to your grave and ‘a lodging house’ is this worldly existence. They blessed you with a very long life. ‘May your table be disturbed’ by many children and grandchildren.

“ ‘May you never experience a groom’s first year of joy’ is also a blessing. You are already married. They blessed you that your wife grow old with you and you never have to marry again.”

See how cleverly the Talmud illustrates our curse-blessing dichotomy? So maybe it’s the way those curses are read that makes them so awful. Naturally, there’s a story about that, too—need you ask? It’s told by the Chasidim2. Here it is:

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi would read the Torah to his congregation every week. Once, when he was young, his son Dov Ber of Lubavitch was listening to the reading of the Tokhacha during the Shabbat of parashat Ki Tavo by a substitute Torah reader since his father was away from home. Dismayed at the severity of the curses, he became terribly ill from emotional upset and remained so even after a month had passed, so much so that his father became seriously concerned. The child was asked, “Why were you not disturbed this way when the Tokhacha was read in past years?” He replied, “When my father reads it, no curses are heard.” Said his father, “In truth, they are nothing but blessings.”

I won’t try to convince you that the words you read don’t mean what they say. But keep in mind that the mystics of the sixteenth century did say that Torah must be understood on many levels, and they used the acronym “PaRDeS” to describe them. Pashat is the text’s literal sense; Remez is the allegoric or symbolic meaning; Derash is the homiletic meaning; and Sod is the text’s esoteric or mystical meaning (i.e., its “secret” meaning) which is derived through one’s inspiration.

You’ll need a whole lot of inspiration to turn those curses into blessings, but perhaps doing that isn’t such a bad idea. Just think of the words as bearing secrets and try to imagine what those secrets might be. Even so, we still read this part of the Torah quickly and quietly.

Shabbat shalom.

September 2014


1. Mo’ed Katan 9a–b.

2. R. Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, HaYom Yom for 17 Elul.

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