By Alan Orchover
This is an extraordinary parashah near the end of Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. It starts on a national theme – entry into the Holy Land, flowing with milk and honey – and then deals with the ceremony of the presentation of the first fruits with a detailed prayer (unique in the Torah) that had to be recited in Hebrew. It was so impressive that it was reinstated into the Pesach Haggadah albeit with a slightly different interpretation.
This very upbeat introduction to the parashah is so connected with the Promised Land of Israel that many Masorti/Conservative communities considered it appropriate to be the Torah reading for services on Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day.
Then the parashah gradually changes and after being given the choice to obey or disobey the mitzvot (commandments), the people of Israel recited a series of blessings and curses on two separate mountain slopes – Gerezim and Ebal. The parashah then goes into what is known as the tochechah or ‘rebuke’, setting out 98 specific threats of dire happenings if Israel rejects the mitzvot. A similar passage of rebuke is also read at the end of Leviticus, but this one is much longer and more shocking in the detailed horrors which are to be experienced by the people if they sin.
If, as is accepted by the Bible critics, Devarim was written at the time of the later kings of Judah before the Exile to Babylon, this section is remarkably prescient as many of the threats were experienced by the Jewish people during the Babylonian conquest. Our history unfortunately shows that during periodic periods of persecution and suffering over the past 2000 years, culminating in the Holocaust, similar terrible incidents continued to take place.
I am not suggesting that the persecutions against the Jews should be seen as divine punishments for disobeying the mitzvot, but simply setting out what is, perhaps, a controversial summary of Jewish history. In any event, these catalogues of disasters had a self-fulfilling tendency as is borne out by the 9th Av calamities or the continual calumny of being charged with deicide for two millennia!
This passage always created a problem for our forebears as no-one wanted to be called up to the reading of this piece of Torah, as a superstition developed that one might have to suffer some of the curses.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that a bizarre custom grew up for reciting these curses in an undertone (so no-one who is not near the reading desk can hear them) and at great speed as if this would minimise their possible efficacy! The passage was also customarily read by the rabbi who appointed himself as scapegoat for the community.
As everything has to end on a happy note, the tochechah is followed by eight verses which are pleasant to read so that we are not left with bone-chilling curses reverberating in our souls.
Alan Orchover is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue