98 WORDS TO THE WISE – Kee tavo, Deut.26-29:8 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Torah reading includes Moses’ Third Discourse, and the famous lists of blessings and curses – blessings earned by carrying out the Divine commandments, and curses incurred by violating them. When reading this section in traditional Sabbath services, either the rabbi or the Torah reader himself is called to recite the blessings before and after the section is read.
The reader starts chanting the words in full voice, detailing the blessings we can expect from right conduct. For example, “G-d will make you the head and not the tail. You will always be above and never below, when you listen to G-d’s commandments that I give you today.”
And then the reader drops his pitch and his volume, and launches into a list of warnings – disasters we can bring on ourselves. A hush falls on the congregation. Quiet though the reader’s voice may be, the tokhakha – the Warning – rings out. “You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the field… cursed in the fruit of your body and in the fruit of your land… G-d will cause you to be struck by your enemies. You will go out against them on one road, and flee from them by seven roads. You will become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth… You will betroth a woman and another man will lie with her, you will build a house and you will not dwell there, plant a vineyard and not use its fruit… Your sons and daughters will be given to another people and your eyes will see, and you will ache from losing them but will have no power in your hand… You will become insane from what your eyes will see.” And on and on. Diseases brought on by perversion; defeat resulting from false pride. The last verses sum up the feeling of the sufferer: “You will not believe in your life. In the morning you will say ‘if night will only come’ and in the evening you will say ‘when will it be morning?’… G-d will return you to Egypt in ships and you will offer yourselves for sale as servants and maids and no one will buy.”
As many commentators observed, the only worse predictions possible would be to describe what really happened in Jewish history.
This is not the only list of warnings in the Torah. The first one comes in the reading called Behukotai at the end of the Book of Leviticus, in preparation for receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Also quite dramatic, it is expressed differently. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that here in Deuteronomy we have twice as many warnings as in Leviticus. There we had 49. Here are 98. Why is this text double length? His answer is fascinating. He says since Behukotai is read before the holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost) it commemorates receiving the Torah, when the Jewish People were on the level of tzadikim, the righteous. Here in Kee Tavo we are preparing for the High Holidays when the goal is teshuvah, repentance or return. The Talmud teaches that the true returnee, the baal teshuvah, occupies a moral position higher even than the most complete tzadik. Therefore when preparing for that kind of return, we need more warnings.
As if welcoming all of us potential New Year returnees, this week’s Haftorah from chapter 60 of the prophet Isaiah starts with the great words: “Kumi ori – Rise and shine, for your light has arrived, and G-d’s glory shines on you!” So may it be this year.