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Ki Tavo 5782 ~ September 16, 2022

This Saturday evening we will begin the official Penitential Season with a most beautiful and meaningful Selichot service.  As we hear the familiar melodies of the High Holy Days and hear the tekiah of the shofar, we are beginning to sensitize ourselves to the many aspects and symbols associated with the ceremonies and rituals.

The Torah reading for this Shabbat also begins to prepare us for Selichot and the High Holy Day season. The parasha, Ki Tavo, is filled with reminders of blessings and curses that can either bring prosperity or wreak havoc upon individual and a community, and most specifically upon our economic and psychological wellbeing. Traditionally, we intone the curses in a low voice… so hopefully, in the year ahead, they do not come true.

What is most striking for me is that at the end of each blessing there was a silence amongst the Israelites. But for each curse, the Torah states that the nation answered: “Amen.” Doesn’t  that seem opposite to how we respond to blessings and curses today. When we recite a berakah, a blessing, those around answer: “Amen.” And in a most superstitious way, when we hear a curse, we turn and utter the  “pu…pu…pu,”with the hope that the curse might not come true.

The medieval commentary Ibn Ezra sheds light upon my query. He states that, “All of the “cursed be” mentioned here had first been intoned as a blessing for all the people refraining from becoming guilty of the sins that are mentioned here.”

The response of Amen, is “Let it be so,” that we are in agreement with the blessing of the curse as though we have recited it from own mouths. So that the curses were in their first form blessings and therefore the recitation of “Amen” might be the correct response.

In the Talmud we are taught: “Greater is the one who says Amen than the one who says a blessing.” (Berakhot 53b.)

As we prepare for the High Holy Day season, and God willing many of you will join together with us at Selichot at Temple Emanu-el this Saturday evening and/or for the High Holy Days at the Holiday Inn, be mindful of the Amen, for it as powerful as all of the words recited.

More importantly, do not be imitated by knowledge and action… for it is the action of the heart and our personal thoughts that are most quintessential to our individual response to the blessings and the curses, and the opportunity we each have for our personal teshuvah, repentance during the High Holy Days. And it is the power of your Amen that, God willing, will bring blessing for the year into your life and into our world.

Dr. Samuel Lebens, chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism at University of London, wrote in The Power of 'Amen' on Yom Kippur:

“The vast majority of Jews will be marking Yom Kippur in one way or another. And for many of us, the experience of staring blankly upon a prayer book written in an ancient and unfamiliar language is daunting. But if you can say nothing else, you can still say "Amen” and you can know, that in doing so, you have really said it all – (1) you have committed yourself, with that one word, to becoming a better Jew, (2) you have accepted upon yourself the consequences of your identity, and (3) you have expressed the prayer that you will live up to your potential and receive abundant blessings in return.

Don’t look over at those Jews who know what they’re doing with the prayer book, as they fervently follow each word of the service, beating away at their chests as they read the confession; don’t let your head hang in shame that you can’t muster the appropriate feelings, nor concentrate through a cumbersome liturgy. Know that, in the words of the Midrash, "Before the Holy One, blessed be He, there is nothing greater than a Jew who says ‘amen’ ...." That single word, uttered with sincerity, can make the whole day worthwhile.”

May your Amen bring you personal blessing during the year ahead.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi K

Sat, April 1 2023 10 Nisan 5783