D’var Torah for Ki Tavo

There is an interesting ritual described towards the beginning of this week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tavo. Moses starts off by saying: ‘haskeit ushma Yisrael — be silent and hear, O Israel!’ Normally Moses would just jump in with ‘Shma Yisrael — hear, O Israel!’ But at this point, for the first time, Moses commands silence before commanding listening. We’re almost at the end of the Torah, almost at the end of Moses’ life, and now for the first time he’s asking for silence? That’s got to be important; there has to be meaning in there. It cries out ‘darsheini’ — explain me. We learn from here that listening, hearing, isn’t enough. We all of us have internal dialogs as we listen to what other people are saying. Perhaps we’re chasing down a tangential thought. Perhaps we’re already thinking of counter examples. Perhaps we’re thinking of better wording. But Moses tells us, stop! Silence the internal dialog. Listen because this is too important to miss. And we learn that to truly listen to what another person is saying we must first silence the internal dialog. It reminds me of the zen saying: “When sitting, just sit. When walking, just walk. Above all, don’t wobble.” Moses is telling us, when listening, just listen.
So now that Moses has our undivided attention, we are told to divide in half by tribes, with six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim representing blessings and six tribes standing on Mount Ebal representing curses. The Levites were to proclaim curses: “Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by the Eternal, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret. — And all the people shall respond, Amen.”
The Levites intone curses for secret idol worship, insulting one’s parents, moving a neighbor’s property marker, misdirecting the blind, subverting the rights of the powerless, a variety of sexual transgressions, secret murder, taking bribes in murder cases and not observing the laws of the Torah. And the entire people respond “amen” to each and every curse, “I agree” with the terms of each and every curse.
Interestingly enough, there are no corresponding blessings and Rabbi Gunther Plaut comments upon this fact: “The twelve curses enumerated here have no equivalent blessings, but because blessings were spoken (as stated in verse 12), it may be that they were the reverse of the curses. Thus, the first blessing might have been: ‘Blessed be the person who does not make objects to be used for idolatry.’” Rabbi Plaut could be precisely correct; we have no textual evidence. It could also, however, be a matter of buy-in and agreement, hingeing on the use of the word, ‘amen’. When the Levites tell the people “bad things are gonna happen if you do these wrong things…” the people have to reply, ‘amen to that’, yes we understand the consequences for our bad behavior. Maybe when the Levites speak the blessings and tell the people “good things are gonna happen if you do the right thing…” it was sufficient for people to look around at each-other and say “oh, yeah, that sounds good to me, sign me up.”
We must silence our own internal dialogs to truly listen and understand the consequences we face for our own choices and actions. There is a famous saying: Success has many parents but failure is an orphan. When people enjoy the blessings, everyone takes credit. But when living with the consequences of the curse, that’s when it’s important to have had an amen, buy-in up front.