Sermon: Ki Tavo – Blessings and Curses

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses tells the Israelites that they can expect both blessings and curses in their futures, depending on how they behave. It is a difficult part of the book of Deuteronomy for many reasons, not the least of which is its emphasis on the notion that our actions can bring devastating curses into our lives. I believe that Deuteronomy’s clear-cut structure of cause and effect can be burdensome, painful, and even unhealthy. For me, the events of this past week have highlighted the fact that the relationship between blessings and curses is often much more complex than it appears to be in this Torah portion.

On Monday evening, I learned for the first time that a swastika had been carved into a locker at Wilton High School. Immediately after that first phone call, I did what all new rabbis do in complicated situations—I emailed my mentors. I explained what had happened, and I asked for their advice on how I could best support the TBC and local communities. I’d like to share part of the response I received from the rabbi of my hometown congregation because I think he was particularly insightful. He told me that the main thing to remember is that when hateful symbols appear or hateful comments are made, it is not the responsibility of the hurt party to “own” the incident. The appearance of a swastika on a locker is not a Jewish problem any more than misogyny is a women’s problem or racism is an African American problem. He reminded me that, “Antisemitism has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s what others have done – and still do – to Jews.” He concluded by suggesting that expressions of hate should remind all of us that we are responsible for standing up against intolerance and for educating ourselves about different cultures, beliefs, sexualities, and identities.

Over the past several days, I have been in touch with both Wilton school officials and many TBC members. While speaking with administrators from both the high school and district, I was pleased to hear that they were sensitive to the fact that while this symbol may be particularly traumatic for Jewish students and their families, it is also hurtful and dangerous for students of all religious identities.

Having said that, I also believe that even though the entire community is impacted by the hazardous nature of hateful speech and actions, this symbol may cause us as individuals and as a congregation to feel a particular kind of pain. And, though we, as a Jewish community, are not solely responsible for condemning actions like this, we do need to address the reality that this kind of incident can provoke emotions and concerns that will need to be processed. Our people’s history has not always been joyful, and it is appropriate and even necessary to acknowledge the fact that incidents like this can remind us of a larger narrative of exclusion and pain.

But, even as we experience and validate our individual reactions, I would like to remind us to hold fast to the idea that this incident is so striking because we don’t encounter this kind of hatred in our daily lives. As American Jews, our lives are most often characterized by the blessings of acceptance and friendship rather than the curses of hatred and antagonism. And, while the dangers of curses like this symbol are real and need to be addressed, they should not make us forget about the many, many blessings that we experience every day. I pray that we hold fast to the blessings in our lives, that we celebrate the fact that the entire community has condemned this expression of hate, and that we channel our emotions into a deeper commitment to standing with others as we fight injustice in all forms and in all arenas. If we can do this, curses like this one could become, if not blessings, at least opportunities for further progress.

Ken Yehe Ratzon, may it be God’s will. Amen.