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Torah Commentary
Ki Tavo (September 13, 2014)

Warren Klein, Interim Curator, Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica

PARASHAT KI TAVO IS all about blessing and curses. More specifically, if you do not follow God’s commandments you will be cursed, and if you do follow God’s commandments you will be blessed. Seems pretty straightforward to me. One of the things I found interesting about this parashah was the rhythm of the text, how after laying out the commandments for the tithe and the instructions for the building of an alter, there is a list in Chapter 27 about who is cursed: from he who insults his father or mother (verse 16) to he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret (verse 24). This is followed by Chapter 28 in which various blessings are laid out if one follows God’s commandments, such as blessed shall you be in the city (verse 3) to the Lord will make you the head not the tail (verse 13). This then is preceded by a list of curses echoing the blessings: Cursed shall you be in the country (verse 16) to a far worse curse of your carcasses shall become food for the birds (verse 25). Why then is the pattern curses, blessings, curses? Is this to emphasize God’s wrath? Or rather, is it to heighten the sensation of potential blessings?

One blessing I find particularly interesting is Chapter 28, verse 6: Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings. I find this verse interesting because in the study of synagogue architecture, one finds this verse inscribed on the walls of synagogues throughout the world. One of the earliest known examples of this verse on a synagogue can be found in the excavations of the Meroth Synagogue (Image 1) in the land of Israel dating from the 4th-5th century CE. This inscription also can be found on the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curacao (Image 2). The list of this inscription on synagogue doors goes on, but one surprising place this verse appears is on the lintel of an interior doorway in the famous painting by Moritz Oppenhaim, Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn, 1856 (Image 3), currently in the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. According to the catalog record, one thought as to why this verse appears in the painting is “possibly a reference to the friendship between Mendelssohn and Lessing, as well as (in a rather ironic turn) to the transience of the conflictual relationship between Mendelssohn and Lavater.”

I think that this verse was chosen to adorn the lintels and entrances of synagogues firstly for its pleasant message to congregants, entering and exiting he synagogue multiple times a day for worship. But returning to the verse, why then was it chosen as a reminder of God’s commandments and blessings? Doesn’t a mezuzah also serve the same function: a visual reminder of God’s commandments and our beliefs? I believe the key to this is in the word “goings.” One most likely feels blessed upon entering a synagogue; it is a place of worship, holy and itself a reminder of God’s presence. But upon leaving this holy place and reentering the outside world, it is vital to have a reminder that you should feel blessed upon going out into the world, a sometimes volatile place filled with our enemies and the unknown. But the outside world is a place that is necessary for one to reenter so that he or she can sustain the synagogue and its many blessings.

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