Parashat Ki Tavo is one of the two Tochecha Torah portions. Tochecah means rebuke. But this is not a friendly rebuke, not even a tough criticism. This rebuke is more of a threat. ARUR Ha’Ish, ARUR Ha’Am – cursed be the person, cursed be the people who fall into this or that behavior…Now, the lists of wrongdoings and curses are very explicit and quite scary. They are so explicit and uncomfortable that they prompt a discussion in the Talmud (Megilah 31:b) regarding how to even present these verses in the public reading of the Torah.
The rabbis explain that one shouldn’t say a blessing immediately before or immediately after the words of Tochecha of rebuke. They argue that God said: “my children are being cursed and you, you are saying a blessing?” The Rabbis couldn’t work with these curses as a theological premise. The idea of a cursing God wasn’t unheard of but this was too intense, this was too much for them to take in. These mortifying descriptions were tapping into the very vivid post-traumatic memory of the Babilonian and Rome exiles. Furthermore, theologically speaking the rabbinical narrative had always emphasized Teshuva the divine gift of returning or in other words the human ability to reflect and rectify.
And so in this conversation the Rabbis are modeling a very important skill; In his book “Think Again” Prof. Adam Grant calls this skill – Rethinking. The Rabbis are rethinking how to approach a text that is harmful to them. They are rejecting a theological approach that did not work for them. The model of instilling fear in order to promote awareness and to encourage the fulfillment of Mitzvot might have worked in the past but it didn’t work for the Rabbis and it doesn’t work for us today. Therefore the portion of the Tochecha is never read immediately next to the blessing, it is always wrapped by other pieces of text; but not just that, it is also read quietly and quickly.
It is quite remarkable that our tradition made the decision to reject these contents while not erasing them from our memory.
These contents were left there so that every time we read this portion in the Torah we can practice rethinking, and we can at the same time both remark these contents and bluntly deemphasize them.
The memory shall be kept, say the Rabbis, and therefore it is still read, yet this memory cannot be at the center of our narrative, because it doesn’t represent who we are today, nor who we want to be, and certainly doesn’t bring any good to us.
During this very special time of the year, as we think about the book of life, we have the opportunity to rethink verses of our own narrative and portions of our own journeys. Without aiming to erase what is harmful to us, we aspire to recognize its presence in our emotional archive so we can rethink, deemphasize and reemphasize our narratives.
As we approach this Rosh Hashanah, may we have the strength to re-read and retell and thus forge our path toward personal growth.
Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach
-Rabbi Nico Socolovsky