Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself

April 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 3 Comments

(This blog was first posted on August 23, 2010.)

These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin .  And these will stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.  And the Levites shall testify, and they shall say to every man of Israel in a loud voice: Arur is the craftsman who makes a carved idol or a cast idol, a taboo of God, or the one who sets it up in a hiding-place.  And all the people shall answer and say: Amen. (27:12-15)

arur (אָרוּר) = accursed, isolated and ruined

amen (אָמֵן) = Supported! Confirmed! (A formula indicating acceptance of a curse, oath, message, deal, or religious tenet.)

Mount Gerizim, which represented blessings, was thickly wooded.  Mount Eyval, which represented curses, was bare and stony.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) and Mount Eyval (right)

The two hills stood (and still stand) about half a mile apart.  At one spot the slopes facing one another were curved to form a natural amphitheater, so someone who stood in the middle of the valley and shouted could actually be heard by people standing on the two slopes.  Gerizim and Eyval rise above the city of Nablus now, but in ancient times the city of Shechem lay in the valley between them.  (See my blog Vayishlach: Mr. Shoulders on Shechem.)

 

The ritual prescribed in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (When you enter), would have a major psychological impact on people just entering their new homeland.  Instead of celebrating victory, they dedicate themselves to choosing good and avoiding evil.

Because the wooded Mount Gerizim stands for blessings and the barren Mount Eyval stands for curses, it is clear that doing the right things means choosing the blessing of abundant life, whereas doing the wrong things means choosing an accursed life of emptiness and metaphorical death.  By saying “Amen” after the Levites recite each curse, the people commit themselves to this choice.

And what are the twelve accursed behaviors?  Making or secretly setting up an idol; demeaning one’s father or mother; moving another’s boundary marker; making a blind person go astray; skewing justice concerning a stranger, orphan, or widow; having sex with one’s father’s wife; having sex with any animal; having sex with one’s sister or half-sister; having sex with one’s mother-in-law; striking a person in secret; taking payment to murder someone; and not upholding the words of this Teaching.

Many commentators have pointed out that these curses deal with acts done secretly or privately, acts that society is not likely to discover and punish.  But if you knew that God would punish you, you might well resist the temptation. By saying amen to these curses, the people are internalizing an aversion to or fear of transgressing.

Of course, more secret vices could be added to the list, but since the Israelites had twelve tribes, these twelve secret sins serve as examples.

The twelve blessings are not listed in this Torah portion, but according to the Talmud they are simple inverses of the curses, e.g. not making and secretly setting up an idol, etc.  However, it’s easy to extrapolate more active descriptions of behaviors that lead to being blessed: worshiping only God (dedicating oneself to a holy path); honoring one’s parents; respecting others’ property; guiding the blind; being just to people who are at a disadvantage in society; having sex only with appropriate partners; refraining from violence, even if you could get away with it; rejecting any rationale for destroying another person; and sticking to ethical behavior while encouraging others to behave ethically.

The blessings and curses still apply to us today.  Every time an individual faces a decision between doing something they know is wrong, and doing the right thing instead, that individual stands  between Mount Eyval and Mount Gerizim.  The Levites in the valley represent the conscious ego, reminding us of right and wrong.

Thanks to our inner Levites, we know that if we do something wrong in secret, even if we appear to get away with it, we will still be accursed:  we will suffer from guilt, we will feel degraded, and we will isolate ourselves.  If we do something good in secret, even if nobody else finds out, we will still be blessed:  we will feel full of life, right with the world and right with our souls.

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  1. […] The city of Shechem, at the present site of Nablus, sat in a narrow valley between two hills (“shoulders”of land):  Mount Gezerim and Mount Eyval.  Much later in the Torah, when the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan into the promised land, Moses instructs them to perform a ritual on those two hills.  While the Levites recite a list of good deeds that God rewards with blessings, and a list of bad deeds that God punishes with curses, half of the tribes are to stand on Mount Gezerim to represent the blessing, and half on Mount Eyval to represent the curse.  (Deuteronomy 27:11-14; see my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself) […]

  2. […] Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law.  (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.) […]

  3. […] people say “amen” at the end of each one, they are actually making covenantal vows. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.) Thus the whole community must vow to refrain from secretly worshiping idols, to follow six rules […]


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