Torah: Curses, blessings and how to balance two opposing forces

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

Isaiah 60:1–22

This week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, features one of the stranger rituals ordained by Moses upon the Israelites who are about to enter the land. The tribes are to cross the Jordan and then be equally divided, with half ascending Mount Gerizim and the other Mount Ebal. Those on Mount Gerizim will receive blessings and those on Mount Ebal, curses. The Talmud elaborates upon this ritual:

“Six tribes ascended to the top of Mount Gerizim, and six to the top of Mount Ebal; the Kohanim, the Levites and the Ark stood below in the valley. The Levites turned their faces towards Mount Gerizim and began with the blessing: ‘Blessed be the man who does not make a graven or molten image,’ and both the tribes on Mount Gerizim and the tribes on Mount Ebal answered ‘Amen!’ Then the Levites turned their faces towards Mount Ebal and began with the curse, saying: ‘Cursed be the man who makes any graven [or molten] image,’ and both groups of tribes responded ‘Amen!’” (Sotah 32a).

Although the concept may seem foreign to us, this process closely parallels that which many of us undertake during this month of Elul. As the Israelites enter into a new land, the month of Elul brings us into a new year of possibilities. It is also the time to consider our own personal balance of blessing vs. curse.

As Maimonides reminds us in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4), “Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. On the other hand, if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.”

As we approach Selichot and its emphasis upon penitence and forgiveness, we reach the apex of this attempt for correct balance. We seek to overcome the many wrongs we have committed with acts of compassion and kindness. Each of us is Am Yisrael, perched carefully between blessing and curse; futility and opportunity.

This balance is echoed in this week’s Haftorah, which responds to the curses of Ki Tavo with words of comfort and forgiveness. Jeremiah urges us to “rise and shine,” for the presence of God is upon us. We read the curses of Ki Tavo and the blessings of the Haftorah side by side, as though they are the words of the Levites, called out to either mountain. This balance transcends this week’s Torah and Haftorah portions: Our commentators point out that in the seven Haftorot of consolation read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, there are 144 verses altogether.

Meanwhile, the four Torah portions featuring curses (Bechukotai, Ki Tavo, Nitzavim and Ha’azinu) contain 143 verses. Maimonides’ prophecy lives on in this balance — each of us strive to eke out the slimmest majority of blessings over curses.

The fact that Mount Ebal and Gerizim sit directly north and south of the city of Shechem further underscores this connection to the month of Elul. Shechem is the first place Abraham arrives when he enters into the land. It is also the first place in the Land of Israel in which God speaks to Abraham and promises the land to his descendants. Therefore, it is the site of ultimate historical blessing. At the same time, Shechem is also where Joseph goes looking for his brothers before they cast him into the pit and eventually sell him into slavery, an event that ultimately leads to 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Therefore, it is also the site of ultimate historical curse.

Each year, we pause in Elul to trace back our steps and remember both our proudest and darkest moments. We cling to instances of transcendent beauty and inspiration to comfort us in our moments of weakness and spitefulness. We revisit our past deeds from the point at which blessing meets curse.

In this season of Selichot and the final days of Elul, may we find balance between such moments and each of us eke out the slimmest margins of goodness and blessing.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].