Parashat Ki-Tabo: Reading the Curses
Parashat Ki-Tabo is famous for the section known as the "Tocheha," which describes the Kelalot (curses), the horrific calamities that threaten to befall Beneh Yisrael if we forsake God’s commands. A similar section appears earlier in the Humah, in Parashat Behukotai, toward the end of the Book of Vayikra.
The Gemara notes a number of differences between the two sections. One difference is that the curses in Parashat Behukotai were dictated by God, whereas the curses here in Parashat Ki-Tabo were initiated by Moshe. Of course, God agreed with every letter, and it was thus all included in the Torah. But the curses in this Parasha were originally said by Moshe, and not by the Almighty.
At first glance, it seems very strange that Moshe would compose such horrific curses. Moshe Rabbenu was always our nation’s greatest advocate, interceding to God on our behalf and trying to secure a favorable judgment for us. It seems "out of character" for Moshe to warn of such dreadful and frightening catastrophes.
To understand Moshe’s intent in formulating these curses, let us first consider another comment of the Gemara. The Gemara teaches that Ezra, the leader of the Jewish people at the beginning of the Second Temple era, instituted that the curses of Parashat Ki-Tabo should be read every year in the final week or two of the year, before Rosh Hashanah. The reason, the Gemara explains, is "Tichleh Shana U’kelaloteha" – "the year should end along with its curses." We read the curses when the year ends to express our hope that just as the year is coming to an end, the curses that threaten us should likewise come to an end.
How does reading the curses help us ensure that they will end?
We might compare reading the curses to other forms of reading and study, such as studying about the Korbanot, the sacrifices brought in the Bet Ha’mikdash. Even without a Mikdash, when we cannot offer Korbanot, we can still gain access to the power and effects of the sacrifices by learning about them. This is why we include the Korbanot section in our daily prayer service. By learning about the sacrifices, we are considered as though we have actually offered them, and we thus gain the advantages of sacrifices despite our inability to place animals upon the altar. This applies to the Kelalot, as well. When we study the dreadful curses in this Parasha, we are considered to have actually experienced them – even though we have not actually gone through this suffering. Reading and learning the Kelalot is thus very beneficial for us, as it helps us avoid having to actually endure them. Even if, Heaven forbid, we are deserving of suffering, we can study this section in lieu of punishment.
This is why Ezra had us read the Kelalot right before Rosh Hashanah. As we stand in judgment before God, we can tell Him that even if we have sinned and failed, we should be considered as having already endured punishment, since we’ve read and studied the curses of Parashat Ki-Tabo. This is why many great Sadikim listen very intently to the reading of the Kelalot, keenly aware of just how powerful and beneficial this study is.
And this might be why Moshe Rabbenu wrote these Kelalot in the first place. He was not trying to curse us, but to the contrary, to help us avoid calamity. He gave us this section for us to carefully read and study, so that we can be regarded as having endured this suffering and thereby earn atonement. The section of the Tocheha offers us the remarkable opportunity to achieve atonement for our sins without having to experience calamity and hardship. It is thus an invaluable asset, and an expression of immense love on the part of Moshe Rabbenu, who gave us this section to learn and probe as a means of averting calamity.