The Torah then turns to a litany of curses. This lengthier list is leveled against those who break the laws. “I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it.” Commentators ponder the meaning of these blessings and especially explain (away) the curses. Many suggest that the blessings are of greater quality so it does not really matter that the list of curses is longer or that their content is so unforgiving.
Still in many synagogues the curses (called tokhechah—rebuke) are read in a hushed tone. This custom tempers the Torah’s harshness. Or does it?
On the High Holidays we read:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.And our cantor often leads us in an upbeat rendition of these phrases: “B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun; uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun…” Does this as well temper the harshness of our machzor’s words? Can the music overwhelm the theology?
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
Who shall perish by fire and who by water…
Many are the attempts to soften the literal meaning of our tradition’s words. Many are the customs to temper the harshness of their rebuke. We adjust the music. We whisper the words. I continue to wonder if such techniques can truly diminish the sting. For those recalling a recent loss does this Untaneh Tokef prayer deepen the wound?
In an age of religious extremism, when these very words are used by some (and on some days it appears, far too many) to rebuke others, castigating them for their failure to observe, we would do well to raise our voices in protest and not speak in hushed tones. Such extremists are really saying, “You should observe more like I do. Everyone should believe as I believe.” It is this ideology with which we must do battle. How can any person know God’s design or intention? How can anyone be so certain about divine judgments?
So how do we approach the harshness? How do we respond to the occasional sting of our tradition’s words?
Perhaps there a clue can be discovered in the very portion that raises these questions. The opening verse should better be translated as the following: “If you walk by My laws…” The Torah does not say “follow” but instead “walk.”
Some people walk fast. Others walk slow.
Everyone must walk at their own pace. That is what I continue to believe.
All we are called to do is walk.