We are in the middle of the month of Elul, a time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, a personal accounting as the High Holy Days approach. At my shul, the Ark is now covered in a white curtain, rather than the usual maroon, and the shofar is blown every weekday. Some feel a bit panicked as the New Year and new school year loom; for congregational rabbis, mid-Elul is like April 1 for CPAs. But my kids are grown and I have no synagogue assignments, so I am freer to think and look forward, even as my fall activities ramp up.
Parashat Ki Tavo also deals with looking forward, to entering the Promised Land (I entered mine almost 5 years ago: Retirement!). The Israelites are commanded to perform a ritual when bringing their first fruits for sacrifice and after donating tithes, with specific scripts to recite (some of these lines, 26:5-8, appear in the Haggadah for the Passover Seder). The scripts include thanks to the Lord and recognition that the Lord is the source of their bounty. Why use fixed scripts? The offerings should be presented mindfully, and, counterintuitively, this is facilitated by using these prescribed words.
The first fruits offering was reportedly a joyous and fun time. From here on, the mood turns more serious, then really, really dark, with an uptick at the end. The people are commanded to perform all the Lord’s commands mindfully and wholeheartedly, so that they become a holy and treasured people. As a visual aid, the people will write the Law on large, plastered rocks (Biblical billboards) and, nearby, build an altar of unhewn stones for offering sacrifices. Writing the whole Torah on plaster seems a huge undertaking, but it might have been just Deuteronomy. As my brother told me several years ago (thanks, David!) and I’ve written here, this plaster billboard practice has been corroborated:
“Ever since St. Jerome, there has almost complete unanimity identifying Deuteronomy, or some large portion of it with the book found in the temple during Josiah’s reign and the basis for his religious reforms. If so, it could indeed have written on large stones, probably as a substitute for actual inscription. Writing on a whitewashed surface would have been a lot quicker than carving. In that area, it was common for rulers to inscribe large amounts of text describing their achievements in stone, often multilingually. The greatest of these was the Bisutun inscription of Darius, written in Old Persian, Assyrian, and Elamite with cuneiform script. The whole text, transcribed into Latin letters, comes to fifty printed octavo pages. It is cut into a steep rock face, several hundred feet high. Its deciphering was one of the great achievements of 19th century scholarship.”
What follows now are instructions for a dramatic, antiphonal proclamation of blessings and curses by the Levites. The other tribes are arrayed on two mountains with the Levites in the valley between, half on Mount Gerizim, who stand up for the blessings, and half on Mount Ebal, who stand up for the curses. The people all chime in with “Amen” after each curse. The blessings are the usual: success, fertility, prosperity, leadership among the nations – all contingent on faithfully and mindfully obeying the Law.
Then it’s time for the actual curses, what will happen to the Israelites if they don’t. This section, 28:15-69, called the Tochachah (admonition, rebuke), is traditionally chanted quickly and quietly by the Torah reader. The curses are graphic and specific, national and personal, physical and mental. Remember the minor Tochachah (Leviticus 26:3-46)? This is the major one. Here’s my summary of the two from 2014:
|Singular,* to each individual Israelite||Plural,* to the nation as a whole, regarding broad, national sinning||Or HaChaim|
|Said by Moses in the name of God||Said by God||Rav Moshe Bergman|
|No consolation afterward – individual will be punished||Consolation – still a chance for national redemption||The nation can eventually recover, not necessarily the individual sinner. Ozer Alport|
|God is clearly the one punishing, like a parent.||Theme of abandonment by God (parent), punishments thought by Israel to be by chance||Rav Moshe Bergman|
|Curses are uniformly horrible.||Successive sets of curses increasing in severity if disobedience continues||IGP. In Lev., like a parent trying to train a child to behave, resorting to harsher punishments as deemed necessary. In Deut., everything is laid on the line at once, like communicating with a more responsible teen or adult.|
*Singular vs. plural “you” is evident in the Hebrew.
In the last 8 verses of Ki Tavo, Moses then mitigates the horror (a little) by assuring the people that, after their 40 years in the desert, totally taken care of by the Lord, they now finally have a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear. They are mature and can now mindfully join with the Lord in the covenant and become a successful nation.
After the Tochachah, it is something of a relief to read the haftarah, Isaiah 60:1-22, the sixth Haftarah of Consolation with its images of light, both physical and divine, and a future of peace, glory, and righteousness. And the days of mourning will be at an end.
Signs for the Office
30 People Share the Most Creative Punishment They Have Ever Received (selected) By hoK leahciM March 7, 2014
6. Not me, but my younger cousin. I was visiting them in Taiwan one summer, and he was horsing around, being a normal hyperactive 8-ish-year-old despite my uncle (his father) telling him to calm down. He then happens to knock a container of colorful beads over, spilling them all over the floor. Instead of scolding him, my uncle lightly reprimanded my cousin, and, with the faintest hint of a smile, made him pick each bead up, apologize to it individually, and replace it in the bin. – shamHu
8. I think I was 15 (definitely in high school) and got caught cutting classes. For the next week, my dad (who was older and had retired the year before when he was 59) went to school with me. He drove me to school and then attended every class with me. He also ate lunch with me and my friends. Oh, did I mention that he wore his pajamas? He did. He didn’t shave all week, either. By the time Friday rolled around, he looked like a crazy ass, homeless person. I never cut class again. I sure do miss him. – TheOpus
15. I had to write reports based on whatever I did wrong.
Once I got caught in a lie and I had to write a report about 5 famous liars.
Once I refused to take a bath and I had to write a report about germs.
This was before the internet. We had a set of encyclopedias and that was it. It was surprisingly effective. – PenelopePeril
Dumb Warnings: Medicine
Warning: May cause drowsiness. Nytol Sleep Aid
Contains iron. Good Neighbor Pharmacy Ferrous Sulfate
Do not take if allergic to zantac. Zantac 75
This formula may cause drowsiness, if affected do not operate heavy machinery or drive a vehicle. Demazin Infant Drops
If pregnant or breast-feeding, ask a health professional before use. Children’s Dimetapp
When my brother said, “Amen” after grace one night, one of his children asked what “Amen” meant.
Before he or his wife could answer, their five-year-old responded, “It means, ‘Send.’”
Protect Your Library the Medieval Way, With Horrifying Book Curses
BY SARAH LASKOW NOVEMBER 09, 2016 (excerpts)
IN THE MIDDLE AGES, CREATING a book could take years. To be a copyist, wrote one scribe, was painful: “It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”
Given the extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures.
“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (1983). “If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”
The curse of excommunication—anathema—could be simple. Drogin found many examples of short curses that made quick work of this ultimate threat.
But the curses could also be much, much more elaborate. “The more creative the scribe, the more delicate the detail,” Drogin wrote. “If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever size him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.”
Or even more detailed:
“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”
If you’re looking for a good, solid book curse, this popular one out. While it’s not quite as threatening as bookworms gnawing at entrails, it’ll get the job done:
“May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.”