May this Year and its Curses End and may the New Year and its Blessings Begin
This week we read parashat Ki Tavo. In this parasha we can find the famous Tochecha Guedola, literally meaning “the great warning, or the great rebuke.” It is a long list of 78 horrible curses that could befall the Jewish people if they don’t obey God’s commandments. Although we also have blessings in our parasha (for those who do obey God’s commandments), the curses are much more numerous than the blessings.
Parashat Ki Tavo is always read during the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew Calendar. Every year, when we hear the long list of curses, we are preparing for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Why do we do this? A good explanation would be that after hearing the curses we are more likely to repent of our sins. This is one of the main tasks we Jews are commanded to undertake before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
There is another explanation that I like very much. It is written in the Talmud (Megila 31b) that Ezra the scribe established that Israel will read the list of curses that appears in Deuteronomy before the new year, so
“תִּכְלֶה שָׁנָה וְקִלְלוֹתֶיהָ, תָּחֵל שָׁנָה וּבִרְכוֹתֶיהָ“
Literally, “May this year and its curses end and may the new year and its blessings begin.” This phrase appears in the liturgy for Rosh Hashana, as you may remember.
What is the relationship between reading the list of curses and the hope that the curses of this year end? The traditional (and witty!) idea behind this phrase is that we hope that the reading of the curses itself will cover all the bad things we may suffer during the coming new year. Therefore, if for any reason we may deserve a punishment, we hope that by simply hearing the curses in synagogue we will be sufficiently punished, and, therefore, we will not suffer the real punishments later.
Our sages explain this concept with a verse from the prophet Hosea (14:3): “Take words with yourselves and return to the Lord. Say, you shall forgive all iniquity and teach us [the] good [way], and let us render [for] bulls [the offering of] our lips.” We pray that our words will serve as an expiation for our sins.
I would like to add one more thing. We pray that this year and its curses end and that the new year with its blessings begins. That sounds nice and optimistic. We really want next year to be a better year! However, it is easy to imagine that next year at this time we will pray again that the year and its curses end! How can we understand this?
I believe you can give two answers to this question. The first one is that we are a bit insincere or even hypocritical. After all, how can you pray for a new year of blessings if you already know that the new year will bring curses too?
The second answer is that we are not dishonest, but real human beings, full of hope and desire to have a better year! Yes, we know that every year of our lives will probably bring blessings and curses together. Some years will be more positive, and other ones will be more negative. We certainly know this. However, each year we fully hope that the next year will be better, more positive, than the last one. It is as simple as that. We believe in God and ask him to bless us for the new year, tobless us with good things for ourselves and our families and friends.
This Shabbat our parasha will again include the curses of the Torah (although the triennial cycle for the reading of the Torah does not include them this year, to be precise). Let’s pray with a sincere heart that these curses are the last curses we hear this year, that we may enjoy a new year full of blessings and good things.