Parashat Ki Tavo: A successful society’s foundations

Prohibitions that ‘merit’ being cursed are all acts that damage relationships between people.

‘A PERSON’S trust in a fair trial is similar’: Opening the trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24 (photo credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)
‘A PERSON’S trust in a fair trial is similar’: Opening the trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24
(photo credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)
One of the most spectacular events in Jewish history is described in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo: the event on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, at which Moses commanded the nation to hold a ceremony of blessings and curses, with half the nation standing on Gerizim, and the other on the opposite mountain, Ebal, and the kohanim (priests) and Levites standing in the center between the mountains, announcing the list of blessings and curses.
Before we deal with the content of the ceremony, let us focus first on the venue. These two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, surround the city of Shechem – the city that Abraham reached on his journey to Canaan, where he established an altar to God; the city where Jacob planted roots when he purchased a field across from it and where the tomb of Joseph is located. This place, at the center of the Land of Israel, is where the scene took place.
What occurred at this event of blessings and curses? Who was blessed and who was cursed? A not particularly long list of acts merited mention at this event, including acts of incest for which the perpetrators were cursed, as well as anyone who objects to, and rebels against, Judaism. Along with these serious offenses, several other acts were mentioned at this event, undoubtedly negative ones, and we will focus on them to see what these negative acts entailed that warranted them being included in the list of cursed behavior.
“Cursed be he who moves back his neighbor’s landmark.... Cursed be he who misguides a blind person on the way.... Cursed be he who perverts the judgment of the stranger, the orphan or the widow.... Cursed be he who strikes his fellow in secret” (Deuteronomy 27:17-24).
When we look at this list of prohibitions that “merit” being cursed, we understand that these are all acts that lead to the destruction of society and damage relationships between people.
Let’s imagine two neighbors with a light fence between their fields. The ability each has to conduct a serene life with hope for success rests on the trust he has in his neighbor not attempting to trespass and steal land from him. If that trust is lost, the person is distracted from concern about his and his family’s success, and instead ends up focused on his neighbor trying to take possession of his land.
A person’s trust in a fair trial is similar. In countries where the citizens’ faith in the justice system and its enforcement is eroded, these citizens lose their existential security. The Torah does not suffice with a demand for fair trial, but emphasizes the weaker segments of society – the stranger, the orphan and the widow, those who do not have supportive families – as also eligible for a fair trial.
Two additional examples of acts that erode society’s existential security are misguiding a blind person and secretly striking another person.
The first situation describes one in which someone meets a blind person and, rather than assisting him as one would expect anyone to do, he chooses to mislead him. Such a situation is appalling in that it erodes the minimal trust that exists between people. Any one of us would expect that in a state of distress, we would have someone who would assist us. Someone who does the opposite and actually causes harm does not do so only to the blind person, but harms society as a whole.
The same is true for someone who strikes another in secret. According to the great commentator Rashi, this refers to someone who speaks badly of another. In such a situation, which unfortunately is quite common, the victim doesn’t get the chance to defend himself. Only after the damage was done does he find out that he was harmed by the inconsiderate tarnishing of his name by someone who spread rumors about him.
Nowadays, there is a phenomenon in social media called “shaming.” Under the guise of anonymity, we see people humiliated and demeaned. This wonderful tool that allows everyone to express opinions can become a lethal weapon that tramples the dignity of others.
At this event of blessings and curses that took place immediately after the Jewish nation entered the Land of Israel, emphasis is placed on strong personal-social foundations, those that, when adopted, allow us to live in a better and more moral society that rests on mutual trust, concern for others and unconditional love.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.