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PARASHAT KI-TAVO 5757
Entering the Land of Israel after 40 years of drifting over the hot desert sands and after losing 600,000 prime members of the nation, must have been an emotionally loaded experience for all of those who merited to participate in the event. As if the sheer excitement of stepping foot in the land were not enough, the day of their arrival in Israel was marked with countless miracles and numerous never-to-be-repeated religious rites, some of which are described in this week's Parasha.
Shortly after stepping foot on the soil of the Holy Land, the Jews miraculously found themselves standing before Mts. Grizim and Eival, a pair of mountains bordering on the city of Shechem to the west and the east, respectively. There, they were commanded to perform a unique "swearing-in ceremony" in which they accepted upon themselves all of the Mitzvos of the Torah. Although the Torah only provides a broad description of what was to transpire, the Mishnah describes it in full detail:
Six tribes climbed to the top of Mt. Grizim while the other six climbed to the top of Mt. Eival. The Kohanim, the Levi'im and the Holy Ark remained below, between the two.... the Kohanim turned their faces towards Mt. Grizim and began with the blessing, "Blessed be the person who does not make an idol!" -- and the Israelites atop the two mountains responded, "Amen!" Next, the Kohanim turned towards Mt. Eival and pronounced the first of the curses: "Cursed be the person who makes an idol!" -- to which the groups atop both mountains responded, "Amen!" They continued in this manner (i.e. blessing, curse, blessing, curse) for the rest of the curses (mentioned in Devarim 27:15-26). (Mishnah, Sotah 32a)
The Torah provides a full list of the 12 curses that were to be pronounced during this ceremony, each preceded by a blessing produced by inverting the curse. The number "12" was presumably chosen because it corresponds with the number of the tribes of Israel (Ba'alei ha'Tosfos; Chizkuni). In truth, however, the first eleven are summed up by the twelfth, most general, curse, "Cursed be one who does not accept upon himself to fulfill all of the commandments of the Torah." This makes all of the preceding, more specific, curses extraneous. Rashi explains (27:24) that the preceding 11 curses were meant to correspond to 11 of the twelve tribes, while the twelfth was directed towards the entire nation. Which tribe was not relegated a curse? The tribe of Shimon, Rashi explains. Moshe did not want to direct a curse towards Shimon, since he did not intend to direct a *blessing* towards that tribe before he passed away as he did with the other tribes.
At first blush, Rashi seems to be explaining no more than why, in general, the number 11 was chosen for the curses. There does not seem to be a direct correlation between each one of the curses and a specific tribe. Abravanel, in his commentary, attempts to actually link each curse to a specific tribe, although he does so in no particular order. Outdoing that, the Pirchei Nisan (by the author of "Kohelet Yitzchak," Vilna 1900, Parashat Vayishlach) suggests that each of the curses corresponds to a tribe in a very clear order; specifically, that in which the tribes are listed in the section of the Torah that lists the 11 curses (Devarim 27: 12:13).
The Torah commands that six of those tribes descended from Yakov's primary wives (Rachel and Leah) should stand upon the "Mountain of the Blessing," Mt. Grizim. The four who descended from his concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah) along with the descendants of Leah's eldest and youngest sons should stand upon the "Mountain of the Curse," Mt. Eival. In specifying this command, the Torah lists the 12 tribes in the following order: Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yisachar, Yosef, Binyamin (Mt. Grizim), Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, Naftali (Mt. Eival). Disregarding Shimon, at whom no curse was directed according to Rashi, the 11 curses each correspond to a different tribe in the order in which they are listed here. If this is true, the Pirchei Nisan asserts, we may gain insight into a statement made by the Gemara in Shabbat.
Whoever says that Reuven sinned, is simply mistaken.... What, then, does the verse mean when it says that, "Reuven slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine (Bereishit 35:22)" [thereby transgressing the prohibition of taking his father's wife]? Reuven moved his father's bed out of Bilhah's tent, and the Torah considered it as if he had slept with her.
Said Rebbi Shimon ben Elazar, "The righteous [Reuven] is absolved from sin in this matter. How could it be that Reuven's children would stand upon Mt. Eival and say, 'Cursed be the one who sleeps with his father's wife,' if Reuven had himself done so?!"
Rebbi Shimon ben Elazar appears to be proving Reuven guiltless, for otherwise, by asking Reuven's descendants to answer "Amen" on Mt. Eival, Hashem would be asking them to accept a curse upon themselves, which is absolutely unheard of. According to Pirchei Nisan's contention, though, the Gemara is saying much more than that.
"Cursed be the one who sleeps with his father's wife" is number six in line. Excluding Shimon, Reuven is the sixth tribe mentioned in the list of the tribes that stood upon the two mountains. Rebbi Shimon ben Elazar is therefore saying as follows: The curse for sleeping with one's father's wife was addressed *specifically* towards Reuven. Since these curses were part of a swearing-in ceremony, it could not be that Hashem intended to curse the tribe of Reuven whether they accepted His commands or not. Instead, the Torah must have addressed that curse (and its corresponding inverse blessing) towards the tribe of Reuven in order to make it clear that *even* they were, so far, free of condemnation for that incestuous act. Their ancestor was hence officially vindicated from having committed such a transgression!
If the Pirchei Nisan's postulation about the order of the curses is true, can we then show that *each* of the 11 curses was appropriate to the particular tribes towards which they were directed? Pirchei Nisan asserts that we indeed can! Although he only explains the first six of the curses, I found another work, "Techeles Mordechai" (Harav Mordechai Drucker of Strya, Hungary, Parashat Ki Tavo) who resolves the entire lot of them following the Pirchei Nisan's approach. Together with a friend of mine, Rav Gedaliah Press of Jerusalem, I think that I've managed to fill in any of the gaps left over by these two authors. In general, the assumption is that the Torah links a curse to a particular tribe either (a) in order to show that the sin mentioned in the curse *cannot* be attributed to that tribe, as mentioned above, or (b) because that tribe was *outstanding* in that respect, or (c) because that tribe was more *liable* than the others to sin in such a manner, and thus needed a more direct warning. Here is the way the list looks (I have initialed each explanation to show whose suggestion it is):
(1) LEVI - "Cursed be one who makes idols." The tribe of Levi was the only
one that did not serve the Golden Calf (see Rashi to Devarim 33:9). (PN)
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