We always read Parshat Ki Tavo two Shabbatot before Rosh HaShanah, because the parsha contains one of the two tochahot in the Torah, one of the two occasions we are warned, as a people, of the consequences of failure to keep the Torah (the other, in Behukkotai is almost always read two Shabbatot before Shavu’ot, for similar reasons). It is two Shabbatot to give some time for the sting of the harsh warning to fade before we face judgment.
Aside from where Hashem warns the Jewish people of the consequences of disobedience, the Torah also commands Jews to give tochaha, here in the sense of admonishment, to each other.
In Hilchot De’ot , Laws of Character 6;6-8, Rambam codifies those rules, verses in Vayikra telling Jews to let each other know if they have been hurt in some way. (In paragraph 9, Rambam does allow the possibility of the injured part absorbing the hurt without comment or bearing any ill will towards the other). The Torah thinks tochaha can clear the air, give an opportunity for repair of ruptures (and, should the other rebuff the attempt, at least absolves the person of sin in hating a fellow Jew in his/her heart).
The ideal the Torah lays out here seeks openness, seeks a world where Jews want to do what is right by each other, to know when they’ve stepped wrong, to be able to put it right. I’m sure some people still act that way, but I think more often people will repudiate the attempt, deny they’ve done what the other person said, or expect the other person to swallow the hurt without making a fuss. With the consequence the Torah feared, much heart-hatred left unresolved.
The tochaha in our parsha, however, is closer to the next two paragraphs in Rambam. He tells us when one Jew sees another sin or follow an undesirable path, it is a mitzvah—like shaking a lulav, I often add, to remind us Rambam is not enunciating a nice moral ideal, he is codifying a legal obligation, no less obligatory than ritual ones—to remonstrate with the sinner or straying Jew, to work to bring him/her back to a good path, to remind him/her of the damage redounding on a person who acts evilly.
At first, the Jew bringing up the concern should do so in private, gently, stressing the goodwill involved, how s/he only mentions it for the other’s welfare.
Reading those words, I think most people today cannot imagine such a conversation going well. I know I think it rare for it to work out. More often, it would be taken as arrogant or intrusive, as if one of us knew what was better for another. For a simple example: try to imagine asking someone near you to stop speaking during prayers (honestly, a relatively minor infraction, and one clearly affecting other people), without coming off as a know it all or holier than thou.
It gets worse. Rambam holds Jews must attempt tochaha until the sinner hits him/her! In saying so, he is following the strictest of views, where others allow the remonstrator to refrain as soon as the sinner gets angry. I think, today, we correctly assume most people will react that way and therefore proactively refrain.
There’s more, and it is worth reading, but we can stop here, knowing the Torah wanted a Jewish society where Jews helped each other, in ways Western society might think of as intrusive. Not because any one of us is better than the others, but because we all step wrong sometimes, and the sooner we are able to admit it, change it, and improve it, the better off we will be.
Hashem’s tochaha in Ki Tavo seeks a similar outcome. The point is clearly not to find a way to punish, as the tochaha is preceded by promises of the bounty available should we only act properly. Hashem wants, rather, for us to remember the simple lesson of carrot and stick. To help us find our best outcomes, we need reinforcement when we do well, and prods of increasing severity when we stray off path.
Sadly, we live in a world where too many of us reject such remonstration out of hand, deny anyone else’s right to give us the awareness we may not find ourselves. In doing so, in building a society of tochaha–objectors, we lose half the arrows in the quiver, and open ourselves to the risk of never hearing what we need.
Especially with Rosh HaShana approaching, we can hope this year to hear the Torah’s tochaha, and the tochaha from others around us, in the name of deserving a ketiva ve-hatima tovah.