by Cantor David Lipp
To Curse is Human, to Bless Divine.
If one were to browse a few choice Yiddish curses, translated into English, we’d find ourselves quite human:
His luck should be as bright as a new moon.
His bones be broken as often as the 10 commandments.
He should run to the toilet every three minutes or every three months.
He should grow so rich that his widow’s second husband never has to worry about making a living.
But if one were to encounter our Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, we might find that cursing is, under the right circumstances, divine as well.
Deuteronomy contains a plethora of examples of God telling us through Moses that if we obey we will be blessed but if/when we disobey we will be cursed mercilessly. In the midst of paranoia, pestilence, famine, exile, madness, cannibalism, slavery and much more, Deuteronomy 28:47 is often singled out for commentary: ‘Because you would not serve the Eternal your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.’
The implication is that not following God’s commands even after freedom from Egypt and the miraculous survival in the desert journey shows a supreme lack of gratitude. After all, if we were appropriately grateful, we’d not only be diligent in obeying the commands but we would do so with great joy.
This verse from Deuteronomy inspires the telling of the following story about one of the followers of Rabbi Bunem of Pshischa (1765-1827). This particular acolyte of the Chassidic teacher was known to be particularly mean spirited. If he had been alive today, I’m sure a simple dose of Xanax would have done the trick. But this was the late 18th, early 19th century and Schnapps was expensive!
Once Reb Mean-Spirited arrived in Pshischa after Shabbat because he had been delayed on the way. Rabbi Bunem (whose first name was Simcha – Joy) taught: Shabbat is a gracious host. When the first of the month occurs on Shabbat, it takes over the prophetic reading, the Haftarah. When a holiday falls on Shabbat, Passover or Shavuot or Sukkot will be given all the prayers and all the Torah readings (with Shabbat insertions). Even Yom Kippur is welcomed by Shabbat, which gives up all its meals and other appropriate Sabbath joys in addition to the Torah readings and prayer book.
However … when Tish’a B’Av falls on Shabbat, the Ninth of Av, the day when we remember, among many other calamities, the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Shabbat gives up nothing and pushes it off to Sunday the 10th. A guest in a bad mood is not welcomed by Shabbat; better he wait until after Havdalah.
One of the greatest curses of the modern age is that we have forgotten how to unhook ourselves from being in contact with the virtual world. We’ve sometimes lost the art of enjoying the immediate and physical world of family and friends, nature and slow food.
That’s a 21st Century curse. And it doesn’t even have to be said in Yiddish.
Candles should be lit for Shabbat on Fridays, August 23 at 8:08 p.m. and August 30 at 7:58 p.m.; for Rosh Hashanah on Wednesday, September 4, at 7:51 p.m. and Thursday, September 5, after 8:47 p.m.; for Shabbat on Friday, September 6, at 7:48 p.m.; for Yom Kippur and Shabbat on Friday, September 13, at 7:37 p.m.; for Sukkot on Wednesday, September 18, at 7:29 p.m. and Thursday, September 19, after 8:25 p.m.; for Shabbat on Friday, September 20, at 7:26 p.m.; for Shemini Atzeret on Wednesday, September 25, at 7:18 p.m.; for Simchat Torah on Thursday, September 26, after 8:13 p.m.; and for Shabbat on Friday, September 27, at 7:15 p.m.
Editor’s note: Cantor David Lipp, the cantor of Congregation Adath Jeshurun (Conservative), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.