Torah | Turning curses into questions, blessings into answers


Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
Isaiah 60:1–22


In the Jewish calendar, we find ourselves in the month of Elul, before the arrival of Rosh Hashanah. One of the most elusive elements of preparing for the High Holy Days is time. The rabbis are insistent that preparation for the holiday begins well before Erev Rosh Hashanah.

At daily services throughout the month of Elul, the shofar is blown to remind us of the season. And yet, time for self-reflection is hard to come by as we juggle families, parents, relationships, job, health and financial challenges.

In today’s parashah, we read a long series of blessings and curses. The proximity of this reading to the upcoming holidays is more than a bit unnerving. Will we be inscribed in the book of life or not? Will we be sealed for a year of blessing or not?

Some of us find that the theology of the machzor, the High Holy Days prayerbook, does not reflect life as we know it. Life is rarely black and white. It rarely falls neatly into little boxes. Life is messy and life is complex.

Let us transform these curses into thoughtful questions that can help us reflect over the past year during this month of Elul.

Cursed be anyone making a sculptured or a molten image: Did we worship the “molten image” of money, image, work or vanity? Did we substitute these values for God or our relationships with each other?

Cursed be the one who insults his father or mother: For those of us whose parents are still alive, did we demean our mother or a father? Was there a harsh judgment, a sharp word cutting into the fabric of our obligation to honor them? If our parents are gone, did we insult their memory by speaking poorly of them to others?

Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the parentless and the widow: In the words of the biblical commentator Ibn Ezra, these people are helpless. Did we look the other way instead of looking into the faces of those who ask for help?

Engaging in forbidden sexual relationships: Did we allow our sexual impulse to deny that humanity is b’tzelem elohim — made in the image of God? Did we fail to recognize that our sexual drive should reflect this value?

Cursed be the one who strikes down our neighbor in secret: Did we give in to the allure of lashon hara — allowing our tongue to engage in demeaning language?

As we reflect on these questions, we can also be grateful for the promise of blessing in this parashah. We hope that good can be a part of our lives in the coming year. Blessings can bring comfort and hope, and yes, even answers.

Blessed shall you be in the city: We are grateful to live in a region as beautiful as the Bay Area, blessed with California weather, the ability to see the abundance of water, a rich and vibrant culture, the gift of living among those from varied ethnic and demographic backgrounds. Blessed shall you be in the city where you live.

Blessed shall be the fruit of your body: We thank God for our children and those of our friends and relatives. We can be grateful for all children, even if they are not our own, and share in the great responsibility of nurturing them in this amazing world.

Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading trough: We thank God for the ability to earn an honest living, to amply provide for ourselves. If we are unemployed, we pray soon for the blessing of employment in the coming year.

Blessed shall you be when you come in and blessed shall you be when you exit: As we move about in the world, may we express profound gratefulness in our hearts. Even when we face tough transitions in life, there is an opportunity for thanksgiving, somewhere in the situation.

My true prayer for us all during these coming High Holy Days, Yamim Noraim, is that we may all find the question in our curse and the hopeful answer in our blessings.

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].