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Parashat Ki Tavo

September 17, 2008

By Rabbi Daniel Horwitz

There is a famous Jewish legend which has bothered me from the first time I heard it, when I was about 8 or 9 years old. According to this legend, the foundation for the song introducing Shabbat, Shalom Aleikhem, there are two malakhei ha-sharet, ministering angels, one good and one bad, who accompany a Jew when coming home on Shabbat eve. When the Jew arrives home, if Shabbat candles are set, the table prepared, and the house is beautiful for Shabbat, the good angel says: So may it be next Shabbat. And the bad angel, against his will, must say: Amen. And if the opposite is true, the bad angel says: so may it be the next Shabbat. And the good angel, against his will, now must also say: Amen.

I didn’t grow up keeping Shabbat, but that part wasn’t an issue for me. I understood Shabbat was a Jewish priority, even before I understood why. As for angels, I didn’t know if I believed in them, but I could accept them as part of the picture.

The part that bothered me was the last part, that the good angel, who sees the home not prepared for Shabbat, can only say: Amen. I knew that the word AMEN implies agreement, and to some degree acceptance. There was something wrong about going along with that. It seemed wrong that, here, the good angel has no power at all. If Shabbat is so important, let the good angel give the family some healthy incentives to have an appropriate Shabbat the following week! Let him bring them a challah and some wine the following Friday morning, or maybe a copy of Heschel’s inspirational book about Shabbat! Or perhaps the good angel could inspire this family during the week and send them all the other people who had a wonderful Shabbat, so they might have more incentive to keep it properly?

The more I understand how determined one must be, at least in America, to maintain Shabbat as a high priority, the more I appreciate how many advantages the bad angel has. The Amen of the good angel is a sad and bitter note, one of the most unhappy words in our tradition.

In this week’s Torah portion, the word Amen plays a somewhat similar role. Before Moses’ death, he gathers the people for a solemn ceremony at two mountains, separated by a valley. At the bottom stand the Levites; half the tribes are on Har (Mt.) Gerizim, half upon Har (Mt.) Eval. The Levites declare blessings upon those who follow certain laws, and those on Har Gerizim say Amen. And then they declare a curse upon those who did not follow these laws, and those on Har Eval say Amen. And so it would go, the Levites turning one way to offer a blessing, then the other to pronounce a curse. And either way, the people must say, Amen.

If that isn’t frightening enough, this is followed by the tochekhah, the dreadful warning to the people as to what will happen if they do not follow God’s instructions. To have to say Amen in this situation, to have to sanction what we know is a brutal curse, runs against our nature, and it runs against our understanding of God. What happened to the God who loves us, who listens to prayer, who desires and accepts repentance?

Yet, when we say Amen, there is an element of acceptance and agreement. We recognize, as Pirkei Avot teaches, that mitzvah goreret mitzvah – one mitzvah brings another in its wake, and averah goreret averah -a transgression has the same power. We recognize that there are actions which human beings can take which can only lead to a curse. Perversion of justice, incest, taking a bribe to strike down the soul of an innocent person, those can only be seen as a curse. And you can’t undo their effects so easily.

Approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, each one of us has to ask whether there is anything we should be doing which could bring about blessing, which would be to our credit, something to which everyone could recite a joyous Amen. And it is also when we all must ask whether there is anything in our lives which could bring about a curse, which would bring shame if anyone else were aware of it, something to which we might have to say the painful Amen which comes with tragedy and deep sadness.

And when we ask those questions, we understand this is why we have these Days of Awe. This is a significant part of why our people return to the synagogue for these holy days – because there is a part of our souls which knows that, somewhere, there is an angel who says Amen to all our deeds, and also to their consequences.

The word mal’akh, angel, also means messenger. And therein lies an answer to the problem with which I began. WE are the angels; we are the messengers. We are the ones who see a curse or a blessing, and then reflect into it a certain response. If it is a response which helps, which makes a curse more bearable, or adds to a blessing, then we can be malakhei ha-sharet, the angels ministering to the community. If it is a response which does not help, then that kind of Amen will only add to the curse, and will not bring about teshuvah, or acceptance.

As we approach the New Year, may we examine carefully the deeds of our lives, and the responses we offer to the blessings and curses which come to all of us. May it be a year of many blessings . . . but when other things come too, may we bring the response which makes us malakhei ha-sharet, the angels who minister to others.


Rabbi Daniel Horwitz (AJR ’80) serves Congregation Beth Yeshurun, Houston, TX.