Please, forgive me. Even though that’s an appropriate sentiment for this time of year, it’s not describing how I feel right now. It’s the deep emotion I felt on the only occasion I gave a potch to one of my beloved children. She had run out into the street with a bus bearing down, and wasn’t showing any understanding for the seriousness of the situation. So the next time she ran into traffic I took her home, talked to her seriously, and slapped her once across her bottom. To this day I’m not sure that I was right, but that’s not my point right now. This is: I then found a quiet place and cried.
I’m not and never was an expert of child discipline. Even as a teacher, discipline was never my forte. But I’m sharing this vignette because this week’s Torah reading is about God disciplining us, the Jews. How’s that for our Parent in Heaven? There’s a chasidishe story about a non-religious businessman in Warsaw about 150 years ago. He visits a rebbe and tells him that he can’t believe in a God of vengeance Who visits horrendous suffering upon the Jewish people. The Rebbe looks up in sorrow, and replies, “I don’t believe in that God, either.”
So how do we deal with this week’s parsha? This list of punishments, curses or consequences is just hard to read. It’s understandable that we whisper it.
I believe that the Kli Yakar on this week’s parsha is indeed “a precious tool” (Mishlei 20:15) for dealing with this enigma. Rav Shlomo Efrayim Luntschitz (1550-1619) was the perfect successor to the saintly Maharal in Prague. His erudition was only matched by his empathy for the impoverished of his community. He worked tirelessly on both fronts. He had the wisdom and character to help us fathom the compassion of God.
The path begins with an anomaly in the text. When the Jews enter Eretz Yisrael they will eventually (a little disagreement about the time frame) go to Shechem for a renewal of the brit (covenant with God). Then we have the next two verses: “When you cross the Jordan, the following shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef and Binyamin (Devarim 27:12)” and “And the following shall stand upon Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan and Naftali (verse 13).” The Kli Yakar noticed the change in wording between the group “to bless” and the second group “for cursing.” See the difference?
The great Rav explains that the differing formats mean that God actively blesses the people, hence “to bless.” However, the curses don’t come directly from God at all. Rather, God looks away (hester panim, hidden face), and the curses come willy nilly through the Divine passivity. The Jews witness the world turning on them, but never God striking the beloved people. He provides support for this observation from this verse: For from the Heavenly mouth comes no evil (Eicha 3:38).
The Kli Yakar further observes that the curses are stated clearly while the blessings must be inferred. By the way, this is also true in the next chapter of blessings and curses. The blessings are brief; the curses detailed. From this he comments that the essential blessings can’t be described fully because they will eventually be bestowed in that hidden World to Come. The curses transpire here.
Finally, our saintly guide points out that the list of cursed behavior is 11. He describes that we arrive at 11 because the Divine name spelled Yod and Hei is one of judgment. It requires a Vav and Hei to spell the glorious name of compassion. The total of the missing letters is, of course, 11.
This last observation really struck me. Numbers in Jewish thinking are very significant. They help us formulate concepts. The number 12, for example, is very meaningful. It’s the number of tribes, months and blessings in our Shemoneh Esrei prayer. Why? Because it’s the number of basic needs of humankind to succeed in the world. They are enumerated in the Musaf prayer of Rosh Chodesh, and that’s why it’s so important that eventually all the tribes must be gathered again.
However, when things go wrong, we must add a 13th. The Sages added a 13th blessing to remove heresy and sedition. We periodically add a 13th month. And often we count the tribes as 13, when we split Yosef into Ephraim and Menashe. Thirteen, as in God’s Attributes of Compassion, is the cure. It grants forgiveness and tikun.
Now we can understand why there are 11 curses. Even when God absconds because of our behavior, the Divine Presence only removes one of the underpinnings of our existence. Eleven remain. For different periods of Jewish history it may be different attributes, and that may affect the nature of the suffering. However, most of the framework remains. God may be hidden, but never absent. Always 90.9% present.
The tragic severity of Jewish (and human) suffering throughout history is unspeakable. But always the question must be: “Why, oh why, have You abandoned me” (Tehillim 22:2), never, “Why have You done this to me?” This difference may seem subtle but is significant.
The last Torah in Eish Kodesh of the Piasetzna is truly heartbreaking. God is compared to a parent who brings a child for an operation. The parent knows the procedure is necessary, but still can’t watch. The Rebbe begs God to look upon the suffering, because he’s positive that when God looks the suffering will end. Just as happened in Egypt when God told Moshe “Ra’oh ra’iti, I have surely seen,” Shemot 3:7 (Warsaw Ghetto, Shabbat Chazon, 1942).
So as we pray during these Days of Awe, please remember what Rebbe Akiva taught: Address God as our Parent and Monarch, Avinu Malkeinu. Reconciliation between parent and child is never easy. The God we pray to, in some ineffable way, finds this painful too.
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.