The Torah portion for this week is called Ki Tavo, from the book of Deuteronomy. Ezra the Scribe, living in the time of the Second Temple (5th century BCE), ordained, according to the Talmud, that the blessings and curses recorded in this week’s Torah portion be read before Rosh Hashanah. He also taught that the blessings and curses recorded in Leviticus be read prior to the celebration of Shavuot.
There are at least three possible answers as to why Ezra wanted us to focus our attention on the lists of blessings and curses in this season. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark a time in our calendar when we are doing Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our souls. It makes sense that we should think about following the instructions of Torah and how good behavior can lead to reward and bad behavior leads to punishment. Blessing and curse follow from observing the commandments or disdaining them, a reminder of the work we need to do.
But there is more to be learned from Ezra’s teaching. In the Talmud the sage Abaye suggests another approach. We read about the blessings and curses for another purpose. Abaye said that we reflect on the curses with the hope that they will now be in the past. We have the opportunity to begin the New Year with a clean slate. The curses of the past remain in the past and we work in the new year to help ensure that this will be true.
The third response comes from the 11th Century scholar, Moses Maimonides, also known by the Hebrew acronym, Rambam. Rambam looks to both parts of Ezra’s instruction: to read the blessings and curses in Leviticus before Shavuot and from Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah. He says that this is actually a mitzvah, an obligation commanded by God. Prior to entering the Promised Land, the Talmud explains, the Children of Israel as a whole were only held accountable as a group for public misdeeds of individuals. But, as the nation prepared to enter the land, crossing the Jordan, something changed, and they were now accountable as a community for the private misdeeds of individuals (BT Sanhedrin 43b). The command, according to Rambam, is to recognize our interconnectedness. The mitzvah in these verses is the mitzvah of arevut, seeing a profound sense of interconnectedness of the Jewish people. We are each the “guarantor,” arev, of each other and collectively experience the blessings and curses of Ki Tavo. The Torah is saying we are in this project of living together; a community of meaningful connection.
I imagine that Ezra would have us bring together all three responses. Yes, we must reflect on the past year and acknowledge the blessings and the curses we have brought upon ourselves as individuals with the choices we have made. Yes, we hope that we can make a clean break from the curses of the past year and start with a clean slate in 5780. Yes, we must fulfill the mitzvah of arevut and recognize that we are all responsible for one another. We can create and be a community of meaningful connection. As we gather for High Holiday worship, may our personal and communal work be fulfilling, meaningful, and transformational.