Affirming Responsibility

The power of "Amen."

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

There is a striking scene imagined in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 27:11-26): Upon crossing the Jordan, the twelve tribes of Israel will divide into two groups. Six tribes will stand on a southern mountain facing the other six tribes on a northern mountain. The Levites will then scream a catalogue of twelve sins, each beginning with the phrase “Cursed be the one.” After each articulated sin, the other eleven tribes call out: “Amen!”

Solid Commitments

The tribes answer the curses in unison–what is the power of the word “Amen”?
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“Amen” comes from the root “firm.” To say amen is to make something more solid, literally, to “affirm” it. Saying amen creates a communal reality by strengthening shared commitments. Judaism normally has us say amen to blessings. We are used to calling out amen for things that we believe or wish to be true. We say amen happily, with great hope, at the blessings offered at weddings, baby namings, and holidays. In Jewish law, answering “amen” after a blessing is considered more praiseworthy than saying the blessing oneself (Shevuot 29b).

And what does it mean to say amen to a curse? By affirming each sin, the eleven answering tribes, individual by individual, voice a commitment to being a holy nation. They affirm their commitment to a shared standard of justice–each prohibited act represents a communal value.

More curses come later in Ki Tavo, and they are graphic: women eating their own children, Israelites returning to Egypt, epidemics, and exile. Perhaps the most severe comes close to the end: “v’lo ta’amin b’hayekha–and you will not believe in your own life (Deut. 28:66).” The parashah seems to say that to deny that our lives have meaning, to not believe in the power of our own lives, is the worst outcome of sin.

Blessing & Promise

If curses represent powerlessness and meaninglessness here, blessings do the opposite: they illuminate possibility and power. By offering a vision of promise, they inspire us to believe in our lives.

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

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