We have all seen stories in recent years of adults “finding themselves” and then announcing to the world that they are really not who they had been before. In the wake of this disaster, trying not to drown in the turbulent waters, are countless wives, husbands, and children who have discovered that a parent’s need to be “true to myself,” is more important than the well-being of everyone else in their world. It is, of course, a tragedy of our age.
Relationships should be the most important thing we have. Not self-absorption. Not asking whether “we are comfortable in our bodies.” Not “living my best life,” or “living in the moment.” Relationships are how we grow, how we improve the world around us, how we best become fulfilled. And those relationships are in every direction: spouses, neighbors, G-d, children, strangers, etc.
The word “Torah” means “guide” or “recipe.” And the guide is for how to have positive relationships with man and with G-d. Boiled down to its essence, every lesson in the text relates to growing positive relationships within and between our families and neighborhoods, our broader society and our connection to the divine.
In the Torah there is a unique sequence where all the people are told, en masse, of a series of curses. All must answer “Amen,” showing their acceptance of the curse, the consequences for these specific forbidden actions. Here is that list, from Deut. 27:
Any party who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by G-d, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.
The one who insults father or mother
The one who moves a neighbor’s landmark
The one who misdirects a blind person who is on a path
The one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow
The one who lies with his father’s wife, for he has removed his father’s garment
The one who lies with any beast [devalues man, and real intimacy]
The [man] who lies with his sister, whether daughter of his father or of his mother
The [man] who lies with his mother-in-law
The one who strikes down a fellow in secret
The one who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person
Whoever will not uphold the words of this Torah and observe them
This is really quite a remarkable list – both for what it includes and what it does not mention. This list is quite different, for example, from the Ten Commandments. There is no mention of the Sabbath, or being envious of others.
The question asks itself: what is special about this list? Why is it called out?
I think an answer is that every single item in the list is centered on the things that are most corrosive for relationships within marriages, families, and society. And it also clearly does not suggest, counter to popular culture, that “anything consenting adults want to do is fine.” Why? I think it is clear: there are always other victims – whether other family members (either as collateral damage or opportunity cost), or in the case of perverting justice, society itself.
Indeed, if you look at that list, you’ll see another common thread. Each and every one of those curses is for something that someone thought they could do, and get away with it. They are all acts that undermine something or somebody: your parents, your neighbor, the blind man. These are not public acts but private ones. But they are called out in the text as a broad, societal pact, telling us that our private acts have public ramifications.
These acts are also irrevocable. Bearing false witness in a case about theft would not lead to the execution of the innocent would-be thief. But murder ends a life. Incest cannot be undone. Every single example in the text is for something that specifically undermines the possibility of redemptive growth. This is why they must be called out in public, and acknowledged by all.
This answer also explains all the commandments not mentioned in this list. The list of kosher animals or a reminder to keep the Sabbath or even not being envious of others are all not included because they are all ways in which we can grow.
But the items in this list are all there because they undermine and destroy the possibility of growth. In other words, most commandments are there to show us the way forward. But the curses in this list are for behavior that block the possibility of forward movement.
And that is why they are curses, and not mere prohibitions. The first cursed things in the Torah are: the snake (for inciting Eve); the ground for Adam’s sake in eating the fruit (so agriculture requires hard labor); the ground again for accepting Abel’s blood; and Noah’s son Canaan. All of these curses are permanent. There is no redemption for those who are cursed. There is no pathway to going back to the way things were before the accursed act was performed.
There are wounds that simply cannot heal, actions that can never be undone. The world around is full of people wrecking their lives, justifying acts that are cursed in the Torah. The text reminds us that not everything can be fixed, and that certain behavior, even if we think what we have done is private, or that nobody else will ever know, is so evil that it irrevocably taints a person, their relationships and indeed the whole world.
If we can but avoid these acts, then we have the opportunity to learn from the guidance in the rest of the text, and grow our relationships in healthy, beautiful and holy ways.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]