Week in and week out, many seemingly mundane tasks are carried out behind the scenes in the life of a spiritual community. These tasks, which at first glance seem routine, ultimately contribute to nurturing a holy community, such as finding Torah readers for Shabbat morning and assigning aliyahs, or honors, to individuals to come up and say a blessing over the reading of the Torah.
Within the flow of our liturgical calendar, these tasks often take on a familiar rhythm. However, there are times in the cycle of our Torah readings when we are jarred out of our complacency and we question the content of what we are reading from the Torah vis-à-vis the honor of having an aliyah to the Torah.
This week’s parashah provides a stellar example of such a dilemma. Parashat Bechukotai contains the troubling section known as the Tokhehah, or the reproach (Leviticus 26:10-46). These lengthy verses describe the consequences that befall those who do not obey God’s commandments.
The Mishnah, the first redacted collection of rabbinic literature (c. 200 C.E.), tells us that this passage must be recited in one continuous unit without breaks (Megillah 3:6). In some communities, it is also customary to chant these verses in an undertone. Why? So that these curses are contained in one section and are neither unnecessarily elongated nor highlighted. Yes, the curses are in the text, but we don’t want to call too much attention to them.
But there are more questions to consider: Who should receive the “honor” of having an aliyah when such curses are read? And what Torah reader wants to read the curses out loud at all? These questions highlight how complicated the task of assigning Torah readers and allocating honors to come to the Torah can become.
Consider the following case. If a baby girl’s Hebrew naming is scheduled on a Shabbat morning when this parashah is read, wouldn’t we want to avoid having the child’s parent or parents come forward for an aliyah when the curses are read? At first glance, the obvious answer seems to be yes. On the other hand, do we really believe that the words of the Torah are efficacious? If we have an aliyah to the Torah when negative words or scenarios are read, does this really have a negative effect on us? Are we giving in to superstition if we avoid the reading of these sections or the honors associated with them?
Our answers to these questions could hinge on our theology. Most of us would agree that the public chanting of words of Torah does not catapult us into the circumstances described in the text. Those of us who spurn superstition would say that it should make absolutely no difference what section of the Torah is being read. According to our tradition, being called for an aliyah to the Torah is an honor.
And yet, it is the custom in many communities to switch the aliyah for the baby naming to a section of the parashah that does not contain the curses. Why? Perhaps, even if we don’t want to hold by superstition and we cannot prove that the Torah’s words could affect us in this way, we also cannot disprove it. For some of us, avoiding the pairing of a joyous occasion with the reading of the curses is our way of not tempting fate.
And so, in many communities, the aliyah containing the curses may be given to a rabbi or someone else who is familiar with the contents of the Torah, lest it fall to someone who may think that these curses represent the entirety of the Torah.
Judaism does not ask us to abandon our intellect altogether, by requiring belief that the words of the Torah are efficacious. Neither does it force us to reject customs that might seem superstitious, such as having an aliyah on a joyous occasion when curses are read. Some customs in our tradition, such as wearing a hamsa, a Middle Eastern hand-shaped amulet, thought to protect against the “evil eye,” can be meaningful even if we don’t fully believe in their efficacy. Can we prove it? No. Can we disprove it? No. But let’s not tempt fate.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.