(photo credit: Israel Weiss (firstname.lastname@example.org))
‘They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain’ (Exodus 19:17)
There are two Shabbatot in the year in which the biblical reading is so frightening it casts a spell of gloom over all the congregants. The first is this week’s portion, Behukotai, and the second is in the portion of Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 28:15-68. These particular verses are known as the “Curses” or “Chastisements” because they detail the horrific disasters that will befall the Israelites if they do not heed the laws of God’s Covenant. Custom dictates that the Torah reader recite these verses in a whisper and at top speed; usually it is the Torah reader himself who takes this aliya, and in some congregations no one takes the aliya at all (a practice which I completely disapprove of). Nevertheless, you can readily understand how a curtain of despair descends on the congregation when these particular portions are read.
The Talmud maintains that Ezra, the great scribe and lawgiver who was chiefly responsible for the religious revival of the Jews when they returned from Babylon to Judea in the sixth century BCE, decreed that the calendar be worked out in such a way that the “curses” of Behukotai
be read shortly before the festival of Shavuot and the “curses” of Ki Tavo
be read shortly before the Ten Days of Repentance which begin with Rosh Hashana. Why must we hear the “Curses" twice? And why before these festivals? Regarding the first question, Nahmanides maintains that the “curses” of Behukotai
refer to the destruction of the First Temple and the 70- year exile to Babylon that came in its wake, while those of Ki Tavo
refer to the destruction of the Second Temple and the resultant exile of almost 2,000 years.
As to why we read the curses shortly before Shavuot, the answer seems clear. Shavuot is, after all, the anniversary of having received the Revelation at Sinai, which according to most commentators included all 613 Commandments as well as the principles of the Oral Law. I would maintain that Ezra wanted the Jews to understand that the Divine Laws are not options which can be accepted or rejected. The laws that God demands we fulfill are just and necessary payment for the lives that He has given us and the national homeland He has provided for us. Our continuity both as individuals and as a nation depends on our adherence to the Laws.
Indeed, the talmudic sages describe Revelation in very graphic terms:
“They stood transfixed at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17)
Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, held the mountain above them like a bucket and said to them: “If you accept the Torah it will go well, and if not, there will be your grave.” (B.T. Shabbat
Hence we read the “curses” shortly before Shavuot to sharpen the bite which the Laws must have in order for Israel to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
However, this raises yet another problem. Immediately after the description of the mountain being held over the heads of the nation, Rabbi Aha bar Ya’acov declares: “From here one can bring a strong appeal against the Torah itself,” which Rashi explains to mean that if God ever asks us why we do not observe the commandments, we can always reply that our acceptance was given under duress. Moreover, this aggadic description flies in the face of the basic biblical text, which has the Jews declare “We shall do and we shall obey” without any external pressures (Ex. 24:7, 8).
I would submit that the “curses” are not specific punishments which God sends in a quid pro quo manner. When God first elected Abraham to be the founder of a great nation, it was so that he would “teach his family after him to guard the way of the Lord by doing acts of compassionate righteousness and moral justice.” Our national task is to become a holy nation and a kingdom of priest/teachers to the world in terms of teaching morality. If we do not succeed in doing this – first by sanctifying ourselves and then by influencing the world – then the natural and necessary result will be that evil will consume humanity and the world will destroy itself. And the first victim of the wickedness will be Israel, the nation which gave the world a prescription for morality to which it itself is not ready to adhere. If we do not keep God’s laws and do not emerge as a sacred nation, then the forces of darkness will, God forbid, shut out the light, and our message about a God of love, compassion and peace will be dead forever.
Today, with terror and jihadism on the one hand versus morality and peace on the other, our need to read the “curses” of Behukotai
before the Festival of Shavuot is most compelling.The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.