“The Curses that Blessed a Nation”
After Moshe commands Bnei Yisrael concerning the erecting of the 12 stones, he then adds another obligation upon the soon-to-be-entering nation: the publicly proclaimed mountain-top curses. Upon traveling into Eretz Yisrael, the twelve tribes must split, six of them standing on Har Grizim and the remaining six on Har Eval; the Leviim then pronounce 12 curses while the rest of the nation responds with an ‘amen’ after each declaration.
This list of curses is as follows:
Cursed is the one who…1) ‘…makes an idol…an abomination to God…in secret’
2) ‘…weakens his father and mother’
3) ‘…encroaches on his neighbor’s borders’
4) ‘…trips up a blind person’
5) ‘…perverts judgments of a convert, orphan and widow’
6) ‘…lies with his father’s wife’
7) ‘…lies with an animal’
8) ‘…lies with his sister’
9) ‘…lies with his mother-in-law’
10)‘…hits his friend…in secret’
11)‘…take bribes…to punish an innocent person’
12)‘… doesn’t uphold these laws’
Why are these particular curses chosen? We’ve seen many variations of the same commands previously, in many other places throughout the Torah; we have also been told of much harsher warnings – why these, why now? Why are they proclaimed aloud for all to witness and affirm? Shouldn’t the entire Torah be similarly publicly accepted and not just these particular transgressions?
The first step in unraveling this particularly enigmatic command is appreciating its structure. When we divide all the curses into their three distinct categories – in relation to God; interpersonal; and national/judicial – a very organized pattern becomes apparent:
In relation to God (1),
In relation to God (12).
The first aspect of this pattern is that the God-related curses begin and conclude the list, sandwiching the rest of the list. There are five curses for the interpersonal curses, and five for the national/judicial – immediately equating the two themes’ importance. Also, the structure of the list is A1, B1, C1, B2, C2, A2 – and while each and every curse is separated by a parsha stumah (the Torah’s ‘minor paragraph break’), the first set of the national/judicial curses (C1) and the second set of the interpersonal ones (B2) are specifically not separated; in light of the rest of the list’s uniform structure, this aberration is dramatically emphasized, conveying the understanding that even though the ideas of the sets of curses may seem thematically dissimilar, the import of their lesson is equally potent, ‘connected’. In the same vein, the repeated ‘mixing’ of the two predominant themes of these curses (B and C and then B and C again) also conveys a similar equality of importance between the two themes; for if the list had placed all the interpersonal-themed curses first, for example, the reader could have misconstrued their heightened level of significance over that of the ‘secondary’ set, the judicial/national.
The context of this episode is ‘when you pass over the Yarden’ (11); so these particular curses are to be declared by the nation specifically upon crossing into their Land, when a new, independently guided life in a new locale will begin. When Bnei Yisrael enters into Eretz Yisrael they will experience a modified God-involved life and they will therefore need additional instruction: immediately upon entering their ‘new world’, these 12 declarations must serve to direct the nation how to properly live in their newfound circumstances as faithful observers of God’s previously prescribed Law.
How does this particular event accomplish this necessary goal? All the ‘interpersonal’ (2, 6-9) commands are prohibitions against cohabiting with internal family relations (excluding ‘lies with animals’ which will be explained); all the ‘national/judicial’ (3-5, 10 & 11) curses are all ones that address transgressions against the innocent and downtrodden, or are performed in secret.
The system presented before the people upon entering their new land and, by extension, the new, amended ‘version’ of their independent life, is an interpersonal system that prohibits the nation even within the context of exclusively familial and private promiscuity. Any working society is forbidden to rape, have illicit sexual relations, or be adulterous, etc. but it is God’s nation that must also refrain from this evil even when it is not public, even within their own homes, even if it doesn’t necessarily affect the larger nation as a whole.
The prohibition against bestiality follows the same theme conveyed throughout the other declarations in the interpersonal list. While any other nation might readily uphold laws against illegal sexual behavior in regard to other people and their society, other illicit relations may be ‘permitted’ as long they are not performed against fellow men. However, Bnei Yisrael must remain holy in regards to even the animal life of their land, to all of God’s creations – once again, addressing an even stricter, more inclusive, level of observance.
The ‘national/judicial’ portion of the ‘curse system’ charges them to uphold a legal system set up to assure that even the downtrodden and helpless are protected and granted fair treatment equal to that of the people who can protect themselves and independently pay for it. It is not satisfactory to establish and adhere to a proper legal system when they enter their new land; the Jewish nation must also assure that all those who need that system’s protection receive it (see Tehillim, 82). Plus, of course, the secretive, private law-breaking (10) which must also be avoided, even when not affecting the overall nation – the similar theme recognized within the ‘interpersonal’ laws. In the same vein, the first curse, the ‘God introduction’, also addresses a ‘secretive’ sin and therefore also serves to obligate the nation in a total worship of God even within their own homes, privately, in the context of their independent daily lives, even without a public demonstration of denial.
Bnei Yisrael, upon entering their new life, at the culmination of God’s promise to Avraham (Nation, Torah, Eretz Yisrael), are commanded to accept an even stricter Torah life which touches even the individual’s newly established personal, less nationally-focused environs; and by proclaiming it aloud and confirming it with an ‘amen’ they will agree to elevate themselves, at the very moment when they witness God’s upholding of His part of their contract. Hence the last ‘curse’, the conclusion of this declaration, is the acceptance of this ‘new’ Torah: a new relationship and a heightened, select way of life – socially, nationally and spiritually.
Shabbat Shalom –
Rav Jonathon Bailey