Parashat Ki Tavo contains perhaps the most depressing and terrifying part of the Torah: the Tochacha. The Tochacha actually appears twice in the Torah, here and in Parashat BeChukotai. These Pesukim depict a terrible picture in which Bnei Yisrael receives horrible punishments because of the gravity of their sins. The exceedingly negative vibe and harsh language contained in the passage led many people, even Talmidei Chachamim, to believe that being called to the Torah for this Aliyah was a bad omen.
With this in mind, Rama (O.C. 428:6) states that only a volunteer should receive the Aliyah. According to the understanding of the Machatzit HaShekel, the Rav of a synagogue should ask the congregants who would like to volunteer to accept the burden, as was prevalent in Hungary (Divrei Yisrael 1:61). Rama adds (O.C. 53:19), as explained by the Mishnah Berura, some requirements for the Oleh as well. For instance, he must not have animosity of any kind towards the Baal Koreh because the Baal Koreh may reciprocate, leading lead to a “Chashash Sakana,” a possible dangerous predicament for the Oleh. The situation deteriorated to the extent that the Maharil recommended that one should hire someone to receive the Aliyah.
The Biur Halacha (O.C. 428: 6) cites a scenario in which some communities erroneously avoided the dilemma of calling a congregant up for the Tochacha. Some congregations were unable to “hire” someone to get the Aliyah of the Tochacha, and as a result they skipped it all together. In fact, even when they could find someone willing to receive the Aliyah, the Baal Koreh and Oleh would avert their gazes from the Torah as a preventative measure from the “curse.” Both of these practices would render the Torah reading invalid. The Shoel UMeishiv references the practice in some communities that the Baal Koreh would read the Tochacha without an Oleh. (5:9) Most of the Poskim were disenchanted with these flawed customs, which lead to the practice of many congregations to call up the Baal Koreh for that Aliyah (Teshuvot Igrot Mosheh O.C. 2:35).
This concept of giving the Aliyah to the Baal Koreh is accepted to such an extent that if the reader is a Kohen, the Aliyot must be divided or even rearranged to ensure that the Tochachah is included in the Aliyah of the Kohen. The general rule is that whenever two Parashiyot are connected, it is proper to connect them at the fourth Aliyah (Mishnah Berurah 282:5). However, when Bechukotai is read together with BeHar, we do not follow this standard and we rearrange the Torah reading so that the Tochachah is in the first Aliyah, enabling the Kohen Baal Koreh to receive the Aliyah (Mishnah Berurah 428:17 and Beiur Halacha). If the Gabbai called a person other than the reader to the Aliyah of the Tochachah, accidentally or maliciously, the person may not refuse the Aliyah. If he knows beforehand that he will be called, he can simply leave Shul until another person is called (Mishnah Berurah 53:58; 428:17).
One must begin the Aliyah of the Tochacha at least three Pesukim before the Tochacha actually begins so that he does not make the Birchot HaTorah on the Klallot. If one does so, he should continue because making an interruption during the reading of the Tochach is a stricter prohibition, including splitting into more Aliyot (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 428:6). If the Sefer Torah was found to have a mistake during the reading of the Tochachah, it should be replaced with another Sefer Torah, and the reading should continue. This is not considered to be an interruption because the Oleh remains there [Kaf ha-Chayim 143:38; 428:32]. Others disagree and contend that the Baal Koreh should first finish the Tochacha (Piskei Teshuvah 428:6 and She'arim Metzuyanim BeHalachah 78:3). The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (78:4) cites the custom for the Baal Koreh to read the Tochachah in a lowered tone of voice, but the he must be careful not to read it too quietly in case the congregation does not hear the words, which invalidates the reading for the congregants.
These various Halachot are important, but one must not forget the true purpose of reading the Tochacha: ensuring that we understand the consequences of our actions and what will happen if we do not properly observe the Torah and Mitzvot.
Adapted from “Halachot Relating to Parashat BeChukotai” by Rav Doniel Neustadt