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Parshat Ki Tavo – The Curse of Two-Facedness

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

The Torah Portion mentions a very unique ceremony: When the Jewish people came into the Land of Israel, there were two adjacent mountains – Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. Six Tribes stood on one mountain and six Tribes stood on the second mountain. A series of Blessings and Curses were recited, to which everyone needed to respond Amen.

The Torah lists eleven curses which were to be part of this recitation for which a person who transgressed them should be cursed. This ceremony was a national acceptance of a binding oath not to be in violation of these eleven transgressions. The specific sins for which it was proclaimed “Accursed be he who…” include one who: Makes a graven image and places it in secret; degrades his father or mother; moves back the boundary of his fellow; causes a blind person to go astray on the road; perverts a judgment of a convert, orphan, or widow; lies with the wife of his father; lies with any animal; lies with his sister; lies with his mother-in-law; strikes his fellow in secret.

Rabbi Yissachar Frand asks the following, basic question on this list:

“Let me ask something: Are these eleven things the worst sins in the Torah? It does not say “Cursed be one who desecrates the Shabbos .” It does not say “Cursed be one who eats chametz on Pesach.” Some of the things mentioned do not involve the serious Karet (excision) penalty, nor even the less serious penalty of makkot (lashes). If we had to pick a list of “the worst eleven,” maybe we would have listed some of the eleven items, such as those involving Avodah Zarah (idol worship) or Arayot (immorality). But most of them do not seem to be “all that bad” that they should be worthy of this unique curse. So why were these eleven singled out?”

Rabbi Frand cites the answer of the Darash Mordechai. He suggests a common denominator to all eleven items. These sins are all done behind closed doors in which a person can act hypocritically. In Rabbi Frand’s words, “A person can act as the biggest Tzadik (righteous person) out in public, and behind closed doors he can treat his parents with utter disrespect. “Cursed be he who encroaches on the boundary of his fellow man.” A person can promote himself as one of the most honest businessmen there are, and yet in the stealth of night he will move the boundary demarcation a couple of inches, and no one will know the difference.”

Likewise, many of the other prohibitions listed here involved sins which could be hidden behind a veneer of righteousness. “Cursed is he who leads the blind man astray on the road,” according to the Rambam, refers to giving bad advice with one’s own personal interests in mind. For example, if a person gives business advice to his friend, when in truth it is harmful advice. Similarly, the curse about one who strikes his friend in private, refers to speaking lashon hara behind one’s back. The commentaries say that this is particularly pernicious because the ‘victim’ of the lashon hara is helpless to defend himself because he doesn’t even know that he is being attacked.

Moreover, it seems that is not just the damage caused by being two-faced that is the subject of such a strong curse, rather it is the basic character trait that seems to be so repulsive to the Sages.

My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlit’a elaborates that the trait of being two-faced or ‘sneaky’ is viewed extremely negatively by the Sages as it indicates dishonest and fear of people as opposed to fear of HaShem.

The Eleven Curses do not necessarily represent the worst sins in the Torah, but they all involve the despicable traits of sneakiness and two-facedness, which indicate fear of people and not God. May we all merit to avoid these damaging traits.

* Much of this essay is based on a talk by Rav Yissachar Frand shlit’a, entitled ‘A Tale of Two Speeches’.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

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