KI TAVO 5773
In the Old City of Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, there’s a special museum—somewhat off the beaten path. Most visitors to Israel never make it there, but whenever I lead a group, I insist on bringing showing it to them. Some of you who have been to Israel with me will remember. The Museum’s name is simple and to the point: Martef HaShoah, “The Chamber of the Holocaust.” Martef HaShoah lacks the sophistication and scope of Yad VaShem—Israel’s primary memorial to the 6 Million—but in its starkness and simplicity, Martef HaShoah leaves an unforgettable impression. Its walls are covered with hundreds and hundreds of memorial stones—each one commemorating a Jewish community destroyed by the Nazis. One of the stones I found there is for the victims of the village of Chudnov. I always thought Chudnov was a mythical place because I could never find it on any map. But seeing this stone made it real. Chudnov is where my father was born!
There’s another item displayed at Martef HaShoah that never ceases to move me every time I see it. It’s a jacket made from the parchment of a Torah scroll. The Nazis, not content to desecrate sacred Jewish objects, would often force Jews to do the desecration for them. Imagine the tormented Jewish tailor who was forced to take the parchment of this holy precious Torah scroll, and make a jacket which some Nazi barbarian would wear as a novelty souvenir of what he thought was this soon-to-be obliterated nation of Israel. When you visit Martef HaShoah, you can see the jacket. If you look at the Hebrew words on the parchment out of which the garment was fashioned, you’ll see they’re words from today’s Torah reading. Words like: “Cursed be the idolater...cursed be he who misleads the blind...who perverts justice...who afflicts the downtrodden...Gd will afflict you with madness, with blindness, with dismay...”
You get the idea. This tailor had a great deal of courage. The jacket he was forced to piece together from the holy Torah consists of the curses, the Tochacha, read today in graphic detail. If being forced to desecrate a Seyfer Torah could ever be connected with laughter, I would say that this heroic tailor had the last laugh!
Strange customs abound when it comes to today’s Torah portion—reflecting our long-standing ambivalence at reading so painful a passage. Problem: No one wants to be called to the Torah when these verses are recited. Some communities would call up yaamod mi sheyirtzeh,meaning, “Who wants an aliyah?” Hopefully, someone would stand up. In my childhood shule in Brooklyn, there was a survivor—Saul Katz—who would always take this aliyah. He figured he already experienced the curses in the concentration camps and so no further harm would come to him. In many shules like ours, they just call up the Torah reader—who, after all, is at the Torah anyway. In some communities, this reading is so feared that the Tochacha is read without anybody actually having the aliyah—so no blessings are recited over these verses. And of course, almost everywhere, the Tochacha is read in a whisper.
Let me read you some of those verses:
“If you don’t obey the Lrd your Gd and all His commandments and statues, then these curses shall come upon you. (Deuteronomy 28:15)
“Gd will smite you with consumption and with a fever and with an inflammation and with an extreme burning and with the sword. (22)
“Gd will turn your rain into dust, and it will come from the skies to destroy you. (24)
“And your corpses shall be meat for all the birds of the sky and for the beasts of the earth. (26)
“Gd will smite you with madness and blindness and a confusion of the heart. (28)
“Gd will bring a nation from afar against you, from the end of the earth, swooping down like an eagle, a nation whose language you don’t understand. A haughty arrogant nation which has no respect for the old nor mercy for the young. (49‑50)
“And among these nations you shall have no rest, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot; but the Lrd shall give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and languishing of soul. And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. (65-67)”
If you have time, I suggest re-reading all 53 verses. Not only does it frighten as it vividly describes every conceivable suffering and torture a person or nation could go through, but it reads almost like a blueprint of what actually, took place throughout Jewish History up until and including the Holocaust.
The question arises: why read it altogether? Maybe a more appropriate response would be to leave it out? One could say that Jewish law requires the public reading of the entire Torah—including those portions that may feel uncomfortable. But, more important, these verses must be read in all their starkness, in all their graphic horror, today more than ever. The world needs to hear them.
This past week it was reported that Bashir Assad of Syria used poison gas to kill as many as 1300 people—many of them children. His father once killed 10,000 with poison gas. We thought that after our experiences with poison gas in WWI and especially the Holocaust, this was a thing of the past!
In Egypt, the death toll in the demonstrations there has risen to over 1,000 with over 50 churches burned. In our own country, although we, thank Gd, have not experienced such violence, we do have great unemployment and homelessness and many lay their heads down at night hungry. Our world has become desensitized, and therefore, these verses must be read in all their starkness, in all their graphic horror, today more than ever.
On a more personal note, the reading of these curses along with the blessings that precedes them—especially 11 days before Rosh Hashanah—reminds us that there are consequences to our behavior. What we do and what we say can bring us blessings or, Gd forbid, curses.
Today we celebrate 2 wonderful anniversaries in our shule: the 10th anniversary of Steve & Toni Brown and the 6th anniversary of Carlos and Lisa Abramowsky. Both of these couples are an inspiration demonstrating that you can find happiness and blessing regardless of what life has thrown at you.
What does it take to find blessing in a relationship? Like the blessings and curses in today’s parsha, it takes an appreciation that everything one says and does makes an impression upon their partner and has consequences. Does that mean we need to behave all the time with our loved ones like we’re walking on ice? Not necessarily. It means that the foundation of our relationships must be chessed, “love and kindness.” Everything we say and everything we do should be done and said in a chessed way, a kind way. And every time you get upset at your partner, try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt in that what he/she did was not meant to hurt you because your partner loves you. That’s why he/she is with you. Make that assumption before you raise your voice and confront them.
So to Steve and Toni and to Carlos and Lisa, happy anniversary and may you always live in such a way that your lives be filled with blessings. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis