Sunday, September 7, 2014

Kee Tavo: Blessings & Curses: Bubbe Mysehs/Superstitions, Passing Geometry, & Tailor's Tales

Kee Tavo

“Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe all the Mitzvah/Commandment that I command you this day. …Silence! Listen, Israel! Today you have become the People of the Lord your God: hear God’s voice and perform His commandments and laws. …After you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mt. Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken…. And for the curse, the following tribes shall stand on Mt. Ebal….” (Deut. 27: 1-13, adapted).

            Here we find the entire People of Israel divided into two groups and assembled on the slopes of two opposite mountains, one to hear the blessing, the other, the curse. If they perform the mitzvote properly and follow the Torah to the letter, God will bless them; if not, they will be cursed. How dramatic this portion is, and yet, how ineffably sad! Is God, then, only a Judge, a harsh Cosmic Policeman, who waits for us to fail? Or is He a loving Mother or Father, who wishes for us to succeed in our divine service of Him and his Creation, and rules us with compassion, the better to do so?
            Indeed, this particular section of Torah is so harsh, that it is known as the Tochacha, the “Rebuke,” and, traditionally, is read in a softer tone than the remainder of the Torah, since it is considered a major “kinehurrah,” or Evil Eye. One does not read bad tidings aloud, because, Jewish superstition holds, that might cause them to take place. It is curious indeed that a people who boast so much education—indeed, 80% of Jewish youth of college age are, indeed, attending college, and many of their parents have, not only college degrees, but post-graduate ones, as well—still rely on these age-old superstitions, which we nonetheless deride as bubbe mysehs, “grandmothers’ tales.”
            Still, old habits die hard. I recall how, as a teenage high school student at Yeshiva University HS, having difficulties in Math class, my mother would instruct me to sleep with the Math textbook under my pillow, which, presumably, would cause the pesky Geometry proofs to filter into my overtaxed brain. Of course, all that resulted was a headache. During Final Exams Week, she would instruct me to put money into the pushka/Tsedaka/Charity box, and to leave the house in the following manner: kiss the mezuzah with my right hand, holding my bookbag in my left, and step out the door on my right foot.
            In the end, this all came to naught: I barely squeaked by in Geometry Class, although, to my credit, I did better in Geometry than I did in Algebra; perhaps the shapes and forms of the former subject gave me something solid on which to focus, unlike the “Rate X Time = Distance” of the latter. I would also point out that my mother was hardly a peasant in her thinking: she herself was a college graduate, a teacher and administrator, and earned a Master’s degree in her 70s. Still, old superstitions died hard.
            With the approach of the High Holy Days, we may well ask how to take the “curses,” or sins, from our lives, and turn them to good deeds which will speak in our favor. I remember the Tale of the Poor Tailor—call him Reb Bayrish—who approached his Rebbe, the great Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, to tell him what sins he had confessed to God, prior to the Days of Judgment: the Holy Day of Rosh Hashana, when the Lord God judges the entire Universe, and Yom Kippur, the Sacred Fast of Atonement.
            “So, Nu, what sins did you confess before God, Reb Bayrish?” asked the Rebbe, when they were alone in his kloiz, his study.
            “Oy, Rebbe,” stammered the tailor, “I am just a poor tailor. Once or twice, I may have kept the scraps of cloth that the rich Poyretz, Squire Dominik, gave me to sew him a new hunting-cloak. But I needed to sell it, to buy food for my poor wife and five skinny children. And once or twice, I perhaps ate food that was not exactly kosher. But I was so hungry!”
            “And what else did you say to God?” the Rebbe asked, leaning forward and stroking his beard.
            “What else? What else, Rebbe?” asked the tailor, losing his stammer and growing angry, “Well I said—I said, ‘Look at you, O God! I may have done these few sins, but look at You, and Your sins! You cause storms, and suffering and death, and oppress the poor and needy. Tell you what, God: let’s make a bargain: You forgive me, and I’ll forgive You!”

            “Ah, Bayrish!” smiled the Rebbe, “You let God off too easily. Imagine: you could have made God forgive, not only our entire Jewish People, but all of humanity!”