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Ki Tavo 5779: Turning a Curse into a Prayer

Rabbi Riskin of Efrat tells an incredible story about this week’s Torah Reading, the Blessings and Curses. Here I quote from him:

“I was twelve and a half years old and had never been to a chassidic prayer service before. My neighborhood had been gradually turning, into a refuge for Holocaust survivors, many of whom were chassidim, including the Klausenberger Rebbe (Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, 1905-1994), a saintly rabbi particularly well-known for his initiative, energy and kindness... And so one summer morning in 1952 on the Sabbath of Ki Tavo, overwhelmed with curiosity, I put on my crisp blue suit and set out for a world of fur hats and gabardines, eager for the opportunity to be in the presence of a truly holy man, and to experience a different kind of prayer. Now the Torah reading of Ki Tavo is famous for 53 verses which, when read aloud by the baal koreh, are recited quite differently than any other verses read during the year. … Because of the vivid and frightening power of these verses, they are always read in a low voice, hardly more than a whisper. The Tochacha, or the Warning, is not something we're exactly eager to hear, but if we must hear it once a year, then the Baal Koreh lowers his voice. It was a custom I was familiar with and every year it was reinforced. And so I wasn't the only one surprised when right at the beginning of the Tochacha, as the Baal Koreh intoned those first few curses in a whisper so hushed we could barely hear him, that the Klausenberger Rebbe banged on the table and shouted in Yiddish, "Hecher!!" Louder?? The reader stopped for a moment and apparently thought he hadn't heard correctly and continued to read quietly in accordance with Jewish tradition. "Hecher!!" shouted the Rebbe again, his face pale and his eyes determined. "Hecher!!" Perhaps the Rebbe was feeling an unbearable sadness! I knew that he had lost all 11 of his children in the Holocaust and wondered if that could have something to do with his outcry. I wasn't all that far off, but in an entirely different direction, Addressing the stunned silence that surrounding him, the Rebbe said, "We have nothing to be afraid of. Let God hear in a loud voice all of our suffering and humiliations, because after the curses, the Bible promises the blessings and a return to the land of Israel. Let Him hear the curses so that He'll know that this must be the time for the blessings,"

In effect, the Klausenberger Rebbe used the Bible as a challenge to God. And who better to offer such a challenge than a man who lived through the verses we were reading that morning, a man who had never even had the time to sit shiva for his children, because he believed that every moment was needed to save Jews.

Our Torah was given nearly 3500 years ago and we would have to be quite near-sighted, or very stubborn, to refuse to see that the Diaspora and the Tochacha are the history of the Jewish people. We can only stand in awe when we realize that the historical sequences which were outlined so long ago have indeed come to pass, making the Five Books of Moses more relevant than tomorrow's New York Times.”

So goes Rav Riskin's story. Some years earlier, in 1945, in the wake of the liberation of the concentration camps, the Klausenberger Rebbe led the broken survivors in prayer at Fahrenwald DP camp. Here is a segment of his sermon on Yom Kippur. It gives us a sense of the fire and passion tha animated him, the religious feelings of divine injustice emerging from the Holocaust, and the manner in which he took those feelings and turned them around into a mandate, a sense that there was a mission to be done - to sanctify God's name in the world:

“Ashamnu - Did we sin? Bagadnu - Were we unfaithful?… Were we, God forbid, unfaithful to God and fail to remain loyal to him? Gazalnu - did we steal? From whom did we steal in Auschwitz and Mühldorf? … Maradnu - We rebelled? Against whom? We rebelled against you, Master of the Universe?

… This Vidui (confession) was not written for us!” he concluded, closing his Machzor [holiday prayer book]…

But, he thundered anew… “we are guilty of sins that are not written in the machzor… How many times did many of us pray, Master of the Universe, I have no more strength, take my soul so I will not have to recite Modeh Ani anymore”?… We must ask the Almighty to restore our faith and trust in Him. ‘Trust in God forever.’… Pour your hearts out to Him.”

The Klausenberger Rebbe moved from Brooklyn to Israel, to Netanya, and along with rebuilding his family and community of followers, built a hospital to serve all the residents of Netanya, a health facility which would engage kindness to heal and replace the pain and death that had been so prevalent during the Holocaust.

Please discuss this story:

  • Do you find it uncanny that the Blessings and Curses of our parsha seem to have "come true" through the ups and downs of Jewish history?

  • How would you describe the theology that the Klausenberger Rebbe articulated?

  • Do you feel that we, 2 generations later, feel this same energy? the same sense of outrage?

  • What would you learn from the approach of this Rabbi?

Shabbat Shalom!

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