September 17, 2008
Which do you choose—blessings or curses?
Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
"And all of these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you, if you listen to the word of God" (Deuteronomy 28:2) Moses says as his introduction to a beautiful description of blessings presented as a reward for following the covenant with God. By way of contrast, Moses also warns: "If you will not listen to the voice of God ... all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you" (Deuteronomy 28:15), and for the next 53 verses Moses describes a list of dark and devastating curses as punishment for abandoning the word of God.
This "blessing vs. curse" motif, so prevalent on the High Holy Days, is uniquely expressed in Sephardic customs. For instance, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy opens the evening service with a poem whose refrain is "May this year and all of its curses come to an end, and may this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning."
When we come home from Arvit, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is the rooting out of curse and the aspiration for blessing. 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 eat pieces of a fish or lamb's head, and in a blessing lifted straight from Moses' blessings in this week's parasha, 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").
One of the most popular expressions of "blessing vs. curse" on the High Holy Days is the image of God seated with two books open before Him: The Book of Life (Blessing) and the Book of Death (Curse). Our liturgy says "Oh God, the Books of Life and Death are opened before You today."
In the Sephardic tradition, as an expression of alienating ourselves from curses, the custom is that when the hazzan chants this prayer, he changes it to "Oh God, the Good Book of Life is open before You today."
I guess we assume that God does not have a High Holy Days machzor, or, perhaps it is the outgrowth of another custom, one associated with this week's parasha. When reading the sixth aliyah, which begins with the blessings and then transitions into the curses, the custom is that when the curses begin, the hazzan lowers his voice and reads the entire lengthy section in a whispering voice. As much as the "Book of Death" or the curses are clear and present in the machzor and in the Torah, it's unpleasant to chant them in a loud voice.
Throughout Moses' dark description of curses, the theme of enemies is prevalent. This, too, is part of the curses we wish to obliterate on Rosh Hashanah.
Around the same Sephardic table, the Rosh Hashanah seder also includes 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.
The section describing the blessings continuously repeats the word mitzvot, associating the performance of God's commandments (mitzvot) with a life of blessing. The Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder concludes with this theme, as we eat pomegranate seeds and sesame seeds mixed with sugar, both prefaced by saying "May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds" or "May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds and sweet as sugar."
This fitting end to the seder is a reflection of our deepest yearnings to live a life filled with the blessings that can come when performing God's mitzvot.
As I read this parasha going into the High Holy Days, I feel blessed with many things, one of which is my rich Sephardic heritage. Even if you're not Sephardic, you might want to try bringing these blessings into your own home. It's certainly more diverse than a mere apple dipped in honey.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.