Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 1 September 2018 / 21 Elul 5778

Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Curse of Hypocrisy

Moshe instructs the people that when they come to the Land they are to arrange themselves on two opposing mountains, Har Gerizim and Har Eival, for a public proclamation ceremony. In the middle, between the two mountains, stood the elder kohanim and levi’im, who pronounced those acts which bring about curse and their counterpart acts which bring about blessing. The entire nation would answer “amen,” in an affirmation that G-d’s rule alone dispenses blessing and curse.

The subjects of the curses include: secret worship of idolatry, slighting one’s father or mother, moving the boundary of one’s neighbor (so as to increase one’s own property), misleading a blind man, infringing the rights of an orphan, stranger or widow, various prohibited incestuous relationships, ‘hitting’ one’s fellow in private [slander], acceptance of a bribe to convict someone, and finally, not upholding the words of the Torah, to carry them out. This list is followed by a repertoire of blessings that will overwhelm he who conscientiously carries out the mitzvot.

The content and order of the cursed behaviors are significant. Growth, prosperity and success will be withheld from one who outwardly is pious, but privately denies G-d; one who outwardly shows respect for his parents, but inwardly despises them; one who develops an honest reputation, but infringes on the rights of his neighbor; one who grovels before the high and mighty, but does not help the weak and helpless; the hypocrite who poses as respectable, but in private indulges in sexual licentiousness; one who does not openly hurt his neighbor, but kills his happiness and honor in conversations with others; one who enjoys a position of authority and trust but abuses his power by corruption in secret.

These are sins which by their nature are done with some degree of secrecy. Because they are not in full view, they cannot be effectively monitored by society or the justice system. For this reason they are placed under the rule of G-d’s dispensation of blessing and curse.

Notice that the list of sins comprises social sins (disrespect for parents, infringement of neighbor’s property rights, slander, bribery) interrupted by a list of sexual sins. The juxtaposition is meant to equate the severity of social sins and sexual sins, and to disabuse us of two opposite notions: (1) while social sins should be condemned as a menace to society, sexual sins are less serious as they do not affect the public welfare, and (2) while forbidden incestuous relationships weigh heavily on the Jewish conscience, social sins such as slander are less serious. The intermingled list refutes both of these notions, and establishes the equal severity of both types.

The final curse is unique in that it curses inaction. All the other sins that come under the curse are active violations — and, by contrast, the promise of blessing applies to one who does no more than refrain from violating prohibitions. The final pronouncement of the curse declares, cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah to carry them out. This applies to one who is personally faithful, but does not do his part to ensure the Law is observed in the wider community. Similarly, blessing will inure to one who uses his persuasion and abilities to uphold the Torah. It is only in this instance that indifference brings curse. Blessing will be full only when everyone does his share to uphold the Torah.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 27:15-26

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