One might think that this is a statement all about the High Holidays that are coming up in a couple of weeks (!). And that would be true, but it also encapsulates a part of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo.
This parasha is about a balance between privacy and public awareness, acting as an individual and acting as part of a community. In Ki Tavo, we read the last of the recap of laws Moses lays down for the Israelites, before they move into the Land. The focus moves to what actually is supposed to happen when they get there, and settle in. There are rituals of bringing the first fruits, presenting them to the priest that happens to be in charge at the time (not necessarily the Temple.) And then there are the lists of blessings and curses. Very explicit curses, and rather more general blessings.
The Torah describes all the people gathered between Mt Gerazim and Mt Ebal, six tribes on each mountain. Then the Levites are supposed to proclaim the curses in a loud voice, and the people respond, “Amen” to each one. Now, it’s not the actual curse (consequence) that’s listed, it’s what a person would do that would engender a curse from God. It’s a “don’t do this” list. (Deut 27:15-26)
The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) commentary on Deuteronomy notes that there is a pattern to the 12 curses listed. The first and last ones talk about the relationship between a person and God: cursed is anyone who makes a “molten image”, which is the ultimate betrayal of the exclusive relationship God and Israel has; and the last one curses the person who doesn’t uphold the Teaching (Torah) and observe them.
The ones in between, JPS says, are like a concentric circle. The four “inner” curses are about very private behavior, specifically sexual behavior. The next circle out are about social sins, like misdirecting a blind person, moving a person’s landmark, or accepting a bribe in a capital case.
Much like the list of “averot” (misdeeds, wrongdoings) we recite during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these cover both the ones that other people know about, and the ones that only God would know about; that which is unknown, will be known. Because these behaviors are proclaimed in public, in both Ki Tavo and the High Holiday liturgy, no one can claim that they didn’t know it was wrong.
These curses in Ki Tavo are supposed to be read out immediately after coming into the Land, at the edge of a new life. Each year, we too are at the edge of a new life, a rededication, a renewal, a re-statement of commitment to behaving in ways that enhance our personal spiritual lives, the society in which we live, and the acts that are intensely private.
We are midway through the month of Elul, leading up to the holidays. Ki Tavo’s not a bad way to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.