Parashat Ki Tavo includes a long list of afflictions (sometimes called “curses”) that will befall those who rebel against God.
In his Beit Midrash, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, was himself the leiner—the one who reads from the Torah scroll in public. Once, on the Shabbat of the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, the Alter Rebbe was away, and someone else read the Torah portion. The Alter Rebbe’s son, (Dov Ber, who would eventually become his father’s successor—the Mittler Rebbe) was not yet thirteen years old at the time. When he heard the terrible afflictions being read in public, he became very weak and was bedridden. He was so weak that on the following Yom Kippur, his father was not sure that he would be able to fast. “Every year, you hear the Torah reading of this portion,” the young boy was asked. “What happened this year that made it so different?” The young Dov Ber replied, “Every year my father reads the Torah. And when my father reads, the afflictions do not sound like afflictions.”
The Alter Rebbe’s ability to sweeten the verses describing the afflictions comes from Moses himself. A true tzaddik is considered part of “the extension of Moses into every generation.” Moses addressed the afflictions at the people of his own accord, as he did the entire book of Deuteronomy, which consists of the words of Moses to the Jewish people spoken in the 37 days prior to his passing. Certainly, his only intention was for the benefit of his nation, for “Moses was a lover of Israel.” The sages add that “Moses spoke leniently in describing the afflictions.” By doing so, he sowed within them the seed that can sweeten the affliction and even transform it into a blessing. Not everyone, however, can identify the sweetening of an affliction as it happens. The necessary condition for that is to have an extreme and total sense of love and caring for the Jewish people. Someone like Dov Ber, the Alter Rebbe’s son, who eventually became the Mittler Rebbe, who was suffused with love of Israel, was able to identify the sweetening of the afflictions with his inner sense of hearing.
In the previous Torah portion, we read, “Havayah your God did not want to listen to Balaam, and Havayah your God transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because Havayah your God loves you.” In a certain sense, the Alter Rebbe, and his son Dov Ber each fulfilled a part of this verse. Because of his great love of Israel, the Mittler Rebbe, like God, was unwilling and therefore unable to hear curses and afflictions directed at the Jewish people. Thus he fulfilled the part of the verse, “did not want to listen to Baalaam… because [of his] love.” For his part, the Alter Rebbe, while reading the Torah portion, sweetened the afflictions, transforming them into blessings, just as, “Havayah your God transformed the curse into a blessing for you… for He loves you.”
The Teshuvah Torah Readings
The holy Rebbe Zusha explained that the word teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה), which means “return to [God]” and is the theme of the month of Elul is an acronym for five prominent verses:
“Be simply sincere with Havayah your God” (תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם הוי' אֱ־לֹהֶיךָ)
“I set Havayah before me always” (שִׁוִּיתִי הוי' לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד)
“You shall love your fellow as yourself” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ)
“In all your ways, Know Him” (בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ)
“Walk modestly with your God” (הַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱ־לֹהֶיךָ)
It can be beautifully shown that these five verses that make up the acronym teshuvah, correspond to the five Torah portions we read publicly during the month of Elul and Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). The direct hint to this is that the first verse, “Be simply sincere with Havayah your God” is taken from the first Torah portion in Elul, Parashat Shoftim.
Following the correspondence, the verse that corresponds to our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, is “And you shall love your fellow as yourself.” Indeed, Parashat Ki Tavo is filled with love, beginning with the commandment to bring the first fruits of our produce to the priests both in return for God’s love for us in giving us the land and as an expression of our love for Him. It continues with one of the greatest demonstrations of love and unity between all the members of the Congregation of Israel, as they are commanded to assemble between the mountains of Grizim and Eival, where they are to take upon themselves a covenantal bond with the Torah and with each other. The portion ends with the sweetening of the afflictions and their transformation into blessings. (In more Kabbalistic terms: the parshah develops from a state of love to a state of unity. The state of unity is an expression of the World of Akudim, where everything is unified together in a single vessel, protecting all from evil, and even transforming it into revealed goodness).
. Deuteronomy 28:15-68.
. See Tikkunei Zohar 69 (112a) and Zohar 3:216b.
. Menachot 65a.
. Rashi on Deuteronomy 28:23.
. Deuteronomy 23:6.
. Ibid. 18:13.
. Psalms 16:8.
. Leviticus 19:18.
. Proverbs 3:6.
. Micah 6:8. Note that the preliminary conjunctive letter vav in the verse is ignored for the sake of the allusion.