A Story by Rabbi Riskin for Parashat Ki Tavo
I was twelve and a half years old and had never been to a chassidic prayer service before. My neighborhood had been gradually turning, into a refuge for Holocaust survivors, many of whom were chassidim, including the Klausenberger Rebbe, a saintly rabbi particularly well-known for his initiative, energy and kindness. Together with his flock of chassidim, scattered remnants from the fires of Europe, they had taken over the Beth Moses Hospital not far from my childhood home in Bedford-Stuyvesant and, much to the amazement of the local brownstone owners, transformed it into a yeshiva-vocational school and synagogue. And so one summer morning in 1952 on the Sabbath of Ki Tavo, overwhelmed with curiosity, I put on my crisp blue suit and set out for a world of fur hats and gabardines, eager for the opportunity to be in the presence of a truly holy man, and to experience a different kind of prayer.
Now the Torah reading of Ki Tavo is famous for 53 verses which, when read aloud by the baal kriah, are recited quite differently than any Other verses read during the year. … Because of the vivid and frightening power of these verses, they are always read in a low voice, hardly more than a whisper. The Tochacha, or the Warning, is not something we're exactly eager to hear, But if we must hear it once a year, then the Baal Kriah lowers his voice. It was a custom I was familiar with and every year it was reinforced.
And so I wasn't the only one surprised when right at the beginning of the Tochacha, as the Baal Kriah intoned those first few curses in a whisper so hushed we could barely hear him, that the Klausenberger Rebbe banged on the table and shouted in Yiddish, "Hecher!!"
Louder?? The reader Stopped for a moment and apparently thought he hadn't heard correctly and continued to read quietly in accordance with Jewish tradition. "Hecher!!" shouted the rebbe again, his face pale and his eyes determined. "Hecher!!"
Perhaps the rebbe was feeling an unbearable sadness! I knew that he had lost all 11 of his children in the Holocaust and wondered if that could have something to do with his outcry.
I wasn't all that far off, but in an entirely different direction, Addressing the stunned silence that surrounding him, the rebbe said, "We have nothing to be afraid of. Let God hear in a loud voice all of our suffering and humiliations, because after the curses, the Bible promises the blessings and a return to the land of Israel. Let Him hear the curses so that He'll know that this must be the time for the blessings,"
In effect, the Klausenberger Rebbe used the Bible as a challenge to God.
And who better to offer such a challenge than a man who lived through the
verses we were reading that morning, a man who had never even had the time to sit shiva for his children, because he believed that every moment was needed to save Jews.
Our Torah was given nearly 3500 years ago and we would have to be quite nearsighted, or very stubborn, to refuse to see that the Diaspora and the Tochacha are the history of the Jewish people. We can only stand in awe when we realize that the historical sequences which were outlined so long ago have indeed come to pass, making the Five Books of Moses more relevant than tomorrow's New York Times.
That's why the blessings that follow are so significant. The Klausenberger Rebbe's challenge was first and foremost a declaration that the Torah, by fulfilling the first part, the Warning, must eventually fulfill the second part, the blessings. And what are they if not the promise of the end of exile and the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people when God says:
"…Then the lord will bring back your remnants, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the nations amongst whom the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts be at the utmost parts of heaven, from there will the Lord your God gather you, and from there will he fetch you, and the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it." … [Deut 30:1-10]