The story is told about the members of a certain Shul who were all terrified of being called up for the Aliya of the Tochecha (the rebuke and curses found in Parshat Ki Tavo). They called a special Board Meeting, and decided to hire someone to take the aliyah of the Tochecha. It wasn’t easy, but finally a willing candidate was found and hired.
Parshat Ki Tavo arrived and the Gabbai looked around for the contracted individual to call him for shishi. But he was nowhere to be found in the Shul. “Perhaps he’s running late,” suggested one of the Ba’alei Batim, “let’s wait a few minutes for him.” They sat for about a quarter of an hour, getting more and more impatient by the minute. After all, this was not proper. An agreement had been made. Money had been paid. Where was he?
Right when things were about to get out of hand, the contracted man entered the Shul. The Board members ran to him and demanded to know his reason for being late. The individual calmly turned to the angry group, and replied, “I was davening in the shul down the block. Do you really think that a person can make a living from only one Tochecha?”
Rav Chayim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, relates in his Sefer Ha-chayim that this “fear” of the Tochecha in Parashat Ki Tavo led to some serious disruptions and lack of honor for the Torah. He describes that in some synagogues, the Torah would remain open, in the middle of the reading, for several hours, as no congregants were willing to come and recite the berakhot over this aliya. The Biur Halacha records that there were synagogues in which they actually cancelled Torah reading on the Shabbatot during which the curses should have been read (i.e. Bechukotai and Ki Tavo).
In regards to the custom of some communities skipping Torah reading this week to avoid the curses, the Biur Halacha 428 writes:
V’Kamah Ra’ot Osin- they are doing multiple things wrong:
First, they are not fulfilling the ancient obligation to read the Torah on Shabbat, established by Moshe Rabbeinu himself.
Second: They are ignoring the advice given to us by Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei (3:11): “My son, do not loathe the criticism, rebuke of Hashem.”
Third: Their premise is mistaken. Do they actually believe that by not hearing or seeing the words of these curses they can spare themselves and avoid that which is laid out in those verses?!
He ends with three powerful words: V’Aderabba, Chas V’Shalom- it would seem to be, unfortunately, that the opposite is more likely.
Not reading the Tochecha to avoid confronting the notions of rebuke and punishment is juvenile behavior. It’s like when a young child plays hide and seek- by covering his eyes. He assumes that if he can’t see you, then you can’t see him. It’s also what I call the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome: that if the truth of the matter is left unsaid then somehow it has not really happened. We know that this is not the case. The emperor was not wearing any clothes even before the young child said anything.
Nobody likes to hear difficult truths. Nobody wants to be criticized. Nobody likes to hear about their failings. But we must remember the sage advice of the Biur Halacha: Does not hearing about it do us any good? If we think the situation through, we will realize that not listening to our shortcoming or the negative consequences of our actions is a recipe for disaster.
If we are willing to hear the Tochecha, to face the truth that at times must come across as criticism and rebuke, if we are willing to recognize and admit our mistakes- then indeed we have nothing to be afraid of. And in response may Hashem decide that the time has come to bring us blessings in the New Year- individually and as a community.