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The Blessing Of Mysterious Curses
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Candlelighting, Readings:

Candlelighting: 7:48 p.m.

Torah Reading: Lev. 26:3-27:34

Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Sabbath Ends: 8:55 p.m.

This final week of Leviticus is called “the Sabbath of Blessing” — a euphemistic reference to the content of the Torah portion Bechukotai, containing curses said to await Israel if we fail to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will.

Over the years, this thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy, whether the destruction of the Temple in antiquity or the Holocaust of our own time, Jewish suffering is explained as Divine punishment for sin.

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their own agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment anyway? Finally, the notion that God determines history runs counter to everything we know about both God and history. Imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.”

The euphemism “Sabbath of Blessing” is not the only way we mitigate the pain of this parashah. Customarily, we read its curses quietly and rapidly, to get them over with quickly. Some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them.

The normal explanation for this behavior is the belief that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear them and heed them!

Yet we continue to read the curses sotto voce, anyway. And I think we should, not because we superstitiously believe we thereby avoid their consequences, but because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible that we slur over the verses that purport to say it. It is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews — or anyone else, for that matter. No wonder we prefer downplaying the reading as much as possible.

The clear and evident point of the curses is to instill fear of God, an obvious consequence of hearing them read, if you believe they describe reality. If we no longer think that way, however, we need to redefine what we mean by “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis. Fear of punishment was all around him all the time. Yet he hardly preached about associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of Divine punishment” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.”

The curses of our parashah came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. In our time, we have other ways to imagine that. How about the sheer force of numbers: our own earth that goes back four billion years, or the universe that is 14 billion years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God — and to do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world we live in.

So we should happily hear the curses muttered through at breakneck speed this year, not because they otherwise might come to pass, but to remind us that God does not actually manage history at all — in which case it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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