My first memorable experience with Parashat Ki Tavo came when I was a child. My father and I were invited to a Bar Mitzvah in an Ashkenazi synagogue, and the parasha was Ki Tavo. The Bar Mitzvah family was kind enough to honor my father with an aliyah to the Torah, so it was a real shocker to them when my father refused to go up to the Torah. What was the problem? How could my father refuse such an honor?
The aliyah was the sixth aliyah in Parashat Ki Tavo, which contains a description of the most devastating curses in the Torah. In Morocco (where my father grew up), nobody ever wanted that aliyah. It was actually the custom for the community to pay someone to take that aliyah! Just imagine – we usually make donations after receiving an aliyah, but for this one aliyah in the year, you had to pay someone to take it.
What’s so spooky about this aliyah?
"If you will not listen to the voice of God ... all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you" (Deuteronomy 28:15).
The aliyah proceeds with 54 verses filled with detailed descriptions of some of the most dark and devastating curses. Understandably, this aliyah has instilled fear and superstition in generations of synagogue goers. In fact, the list is so gloomy, that it is customary for the person reading the Torah to soften his voice and read this section almost silently. Jewish law is even sensitive to this frightening section of the Torah, in that the schedule of Torah readings on the Jewish calendar is permanently fixed to assure that we always read Parashat Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashanah, so that we do not begin the New Year and then go to the synagogue on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to hear all of these curses.
Enough with curses. What about blessings? With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, we should all have blessings on our mind. In the Sephardic tradition, we not only think about blessings – we cook them! Sephardim turn blessings into a tasty array of foods on the first night of Rosh Hashanah -- a “feast of blessings.”
When we come home from Arvit (evening) services, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah Seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is rooting out curses and praying for blessings.
We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for "tear up" is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will "tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God."
We then eat pieces of a fish or lamb's head, and we say, "May we always be the head, and not the tail" (see Deuteronomy 28:13 -- "And God will make you the head, and not the tail").
We then eat dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say "She-yitamu oyvenu" (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu -- consumed -- sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say "She-yikartu oyvenu" (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu -- cut off -- sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say "She-yisalku oyvenu" (May our enemies disappear; yisalku -- disappear -- sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life's most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.
We then eat pomegranate seeds and say "May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds" (according to one tradition, there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate). My family has the custom of eating sesame seeds mixed with sugar, and we say, "May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds, and as sweet as sugar."
As sweet as all of these foods are, we know that the blessings they symbolize are even sweeter.
In Sephardic synagogues, the Arvit (evening) prayers on Rosh Hashanah open with a beautiful liturgical poem – Ahot Ketanah. Each stanza of the Ahot Ketanah poem concludes by saying "May this year and all of its curses come to an end,” and the finale of the poem is “May this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning." As we read Parashat Ki Tavo on Shabbat, we do so knowing that we will soon gather in synagogues and around our tables, ushering in the New Year and all of its blessings, thus leaving behind the awful curses of Parashat Ki Tavo.
Tichleh Shanah V’Kileloteha -- May this year and all of its curses come to an end.
Tahel Shanah U’Birchoteha -- May this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.