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Cursed is the one who will not uphold the words of the Torah to perform them. And the entire people shall say Amen (27:26).
This is the final curse that was to be proclaimed by the Levites facing Mount Eival, when the Israelites entered the Promised Land under Joshua. It follows eleven more specific curses upon those guilty of wrongdoing, such as idolatry in secret, perverting justice, incestuous relationships, and the more subtle form of theft (moving the boundary of a neighbor's land).
Two questions: firstly, why was this forthcoming event expressed in curses? Moses commanded the Levites to bless the Israelites - as the text opens: 'These shall stand to bless the people on Mount Gerizim' (27:12). This is followed by: 'And these shall stand for the curse on Mount Eival' (27:13). As the Talmud (Sotah 37b) states, the blessings for those refraining from the above transgressions were announced by the Levites facing Mount Gerizim. And afterwards, the curses for those who would violate those laws were announced by the Levites facing Mount Eival. But the detailed text is only given for the curses.
Secondly, the eleven detailed curses do not appear to cover all the essentials of Torah observance. There are no specific curses listed for those who transgress the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, or family purity. What do these eleven specific curses have in common?
The Rishonim discuss this last question. The Rashbam, as explained by the Or HaChaim, says that the blessings and curses are acts of the kind that transgressors would do secretly. This is exemplified by Cursed is the one who strikes his friend in secret (27:25). This also fits with the listed forbidden relationships - the curses focus on incest - within the family. Family matters tend not to be publicly exposed, but they are kept discreet. The S'forno comments differently: namely that the cursed offenses are the sort of sins which are committed by powerful and influential people, who are often beyond the reach of legal proceedings. Accordingly, Moses wanted the people to declare that they despised such deeds, so that the masses would not be punished for the corruption of those they could not restrain. But the first question - why this section is fully expressed in curses only - remains.
It may be suggested that common decency lies at the very foundation of Torah: 'For I have said that the world is built on kindness'. As the Rabbis put it: 'Derech Eretz Kodma la-Torah' - common decency goes before Torah. The ten middle curses specify things which are socially unjust - which would be condemned by any society that considers itself civilized. However, all of them have the potential of giving at least short term profit to the wrongdoer - by selfishly exploiting weaker parties, or 'one's nearest and dearest'.
Common decency breaks down in the spirit of the first thing the list condemns: 'Cursed is the man who secretly puts up a stone or molten image…. hateful to G-d' (27:14). One he had based his entire outlook on a false doctrine which serves his own purposes, he may use it to justify any of his selfish ambitions - as history repeatedly shows. He will tell himself: 'it's different for me - common decency is only for other people'.
A person is not praised for being 'commonly decent'. That is an expected norm of civilization. He is condemned when his conduct affronts common decency - expressed in the 'curse' language. And only when he strives to conform with the minimum level of common decency expected of any human being, does his specifically Torah observance - mentioned in the last verse only - become meaningful in any sense.
For those after more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
This D'var Torah is written in loving memory of my dearest Mother, Harabanit Devora Solomon ztl. who ascended to the Yeshiva Shel Ma'ala on Shabbat Ki Tavo seven years ago. May her memory be blessed, and be a source of blessings.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
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