Parshat Ki Tavo is famous — or, perhaps more accurately, infamous — for the series of shocking and strident curses it includes, threatened as divine recompense for sinful violation of God’s law: non-compliance with the Covenant. Known as the “Tochechah” (“admonition” or “exhortation”), these curses are considered significantly harsher than similar pronouncements in the Book of Leviticus. Here, the curses are intoned by God Himself and in a more confrontational, second person format:
“Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb…. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky. The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil scars, madness, blindness, and dismay….”
So coarse and unseemly are some of the terms included in these dark verses that the Torah reader customarily substitutes prescribed euphemisms for the most offensive among them.
There is a colorful history of fearful congregational responses to this lengthy and chilling scriptural passage. Much of the literature addressing the matter focuses on a single question: Who should be called to the Torah for this aliyah? Who should be “honored” by having these ugly curses (perhaps the most disturbing in the Hebrew Bible) read on his (or, in many synagogues today, her) behalf?! Many Jews, susceptible to superstition, have refused the honor: “Don’t call me…!!”
In response to these liturgical misgivings, Jewish communities have devised creative approaches to this Torah reading.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the “Rema,” 1530-1572) recommended that no one be called by name for this aliyah. Rather, he wrote (OH 248:6), “We call Mi She-Yirtzeh (whoever wants it).” Isserles’ Hebrew is ambiguous. Perhaps he meant that we assign the aliyah to some intrepid, willing worshipper. Or perhaps he meant we literally announce from the pulpit, “Ya’amod Mi She-Yirtzeh” — “Whoever wants it… whoever is willing to accept this aliyah, step forward!” Then we wait and see what happens. Many congregations follow this method even today.
Other congregations call the rabbi or a leading scholar to the Torah for this aliyah — likely on the assumption that such evolved souls and deep thinkers are less driven by superstition. Others require the shamash to accept this dubious honor as a contractual obligation and condition of employment (otzar dinim u-minhagim)!
Some communities simply pay someone — often an impoverished congregant — to accept the aliyah.
The historical record makes clear that occasionally even these subterfuges proved unavailing: neither the rabbi nor the town beggar was willing to accept the aliyah. In such cases, the Tochechah was read without calling anyone at all to the Torah. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadya Yosef was among the twentieth century’s most outspoken critics of this approach. His vocal opposition was necessitated by other rabbinic authorities and communities who actually adopted the practice.
Finally, some communities have been so thoroughly beset by fear at the curses of Ki Tavo that they opted to skip the passage (or the whole parshah) entirely. I personally worked with a gifted Torah reader who steadfastly refused to read the Tochechah each year. (I took over the reading… and accepted the aliyah.) The Chofetz Chayim (Rabbi Israel Mayer Ha-Kohen Kagan, 1838-1933) decried this approach (omitting the reading) in the strongest of terms: “Could there possibly be a greater folly?!” (Beiur Halachah 248:6). He compares those who skip the Tochechah and its harsh admonitions regarding sin to a wayfarer who, warned that there are dangerous pits in the road he is traveling, responds by blindfolding himself. Thus, he explains, he will not encounter the frightful dangers ahead, and even should he fall into such a pit, no one could blame him: after all, he couldn’t see it coming.
Furthermore, the Chofetz Chaim reminds us, such an omission impedes fulfillment of our obligation of year-round Torah reading.
We read Parshat Ki Tavo and its Tochechah this Shabbat, precisely two weeks before Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance that it inaugurates. The historic skittishness of Jews in response to the Tochechah serves as a timely reminder of our own timidity in confronting the execrable societal ills, the moral outrages, and the downright human evil we have come increasingly to witness.
It is our job to speak out, to take meaningful action, but many are our excuses and devices for avoiding these unpleasant tasks.
We deflect responsibility: Ya’amod Mi She-Yirtzeh: “Let someone else, more interested, more committed, do it!”
We defer to the rabbi or other public figures, elected leaders, experts, and professionals: “It’s their job!”
We cynically retreat into our own comfort and prosperity and bestow the “honor” on those more directly impacted by the ills we continue to deplore. “Some other poor soul can do it. It’s not for me!”
We allow moral crises to continue without anyone taking ownership, while we — in no way directly engaged — continue to “read all about it.”
At worst, we curse the troubled times, while turning a blind eye to both odious societal trends and our own responsibility to take action, our own ability to make a difference. “Could there possibly be a greater folly?!” Or an omission more inconsistent with a life devoted to the Torah?
Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Many are our sins of omission. Shabbat Ki Tavo reminds us that in response to society’s most disturbing ills, “Don’t call me” is never a valid option.
Rather, let us model our moral vigilance on the counsel of Rabbi Chaim (c. 1510-1558), elder brother of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. His unambiguous approach to Parshat Ki Tavo’s oft-avoided aliyah has many applications: “Whoever takes the initiative and eagerly responds to the call of the Torah at this juncture is to be praised, and will be richly blessed by the Divine Source of All Blessing!”
Yes, curses may abound. But…
It’s time to step up.