Curses and beliefs: To what do we attest?

Rabbi Shulamit Cenker, M.Ed., was ordained by the Hebrew Seminary, a rabbinical school for the deaf and hearing, in Skokie, Ill. She completed a year of postordination learning at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem before moving to St Louis in early 2016. Rabbi Cenker teaches adults beginner and intermediate Hebrew for the Center for Jewish Learning of the Jewish Federation of St Louis and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

BY RABBI SHULAMIT CENKER

It’s Elul. In Parshat Ki Tavo, as the Israelites are nearing the end of the journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Eretz Yisrael, G-d instructs Moshe to tell the people to enter the Promised Land: 

“You are entering a land of milk and honey … observe these laws and rules with all your heart and soul … you are His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments. … He will set you in fame and renown and glory high above all the nations He has made … you shall be, as He praised, a holy people to Lord your G-d. … Hear O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d.”

The narrative continues with the 12 tribes being split into two groups, positioned on facing slopes of two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal. As the Levites will loudly proclaim 12 curses, the tribes are to respond to each one by saying the word, “Amen.”  These curses are as dramatic as incest and bestiality, and as seemingly mundane as ethical human choices such as accepting bribes in murder cases, misleading the blind or striking down one’s neighbor in secret.  G-d certainly could have handed down many other possible curses at this moment. What’s unique about these 12?  

Commentators Ibn Ezra and Rashbam suggest that this particular group of curses represents actions that are done in secret and are not witnessed or known by humans who could seek to punish. But they are not secrets to G-d, nor to the victims who, for reasons of shame, disability or lack of status in society, may not be able to reveal the perpetration to those who enforce laws and effect punishment.  Knowing and acknowledging that G-d will punish the people for these transgressions acts psychologically as a deterrent to actions that uproot ethical societies and safe, kind communities.

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Further, the people are specifically commanded to answer “amen” after they hear each curse. What is the significance, both of the use of the word “amen” and of the repetition of the word 12 times?

The word “amen” is related by its root (Aleph-Mem-Nun) to the Hebrew word Emunah, meaning belief or faith. Nowhere else in the Chumash are statements, much less curses, written with the specific instruction “and all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ ” It makes sense to ask why. Because, according to my teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe, “G-d is not a blabbermouth,” why restate this unusual charge all 12 times? Generally, repetition indicates emphasis and importance. In this case, it is a specific underscoring of the need for the Israelites to hear, consider and understand each and every one of the statements to be heard.  Are the people acknowledging simply having heard G-d’s warnings or vowing to not commit them?

This is the time of the year, as we move through Elul to the Days of Awe, where we embark on our personal cheshbon ha’nefesh, an accounting of our souls and of our actions of the past year.  We examine ourselves, our actions and our motives. To what values, standards and behaviors, visible to others or known only to ourselves and our G-d, do we attest? Who are we when no one is looking? What are our personal ethics and how are they manifested? 

 As we approach the Book of Life for another year, the process of being written for private and public actions rises to our consciousness. How are we writing our own legacy? What will our families, our friends, our co-workers, our children and grandchildren say that we stood for, when inevitably they are asked?

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova U’Mtukah (a good and sweet new year).