30 Av, 5778
Cantor Phil Baron
Blessing in Disguise
I’m thought of as a law-abiding citizen, a team player, an upright fellow. But I have to admit there is a part of me that’s rebellious. Oh, nothing serious mind you, but I admit to occasionally violating the traffic laws. For instance -- and this is just between us, I might have willfully turned right on red at the corner of Valley Meadow and Sepulveda. Shocking, I know. The things you find out about people…
So, with rebels like me around, it’s no wonder that Parashat Re’eh begins with a stern admonition.
See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day,
and curse, if you do not obey but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods whom you have not experienced. (Deut. 11:26-28)
But is this as demanding as it seems? On the surface, it’s an easy contract to live with. After all, if I had gotten nabbed by law enforcement for that illegal right turn, I’d get a serious fine and a ding on my license. But if I dutifully follow the law I get…what? Gornished ! (Yiddish for nada)
The Torah promises a much better deal. If we walk the path of righteousness we get blessed by God! And who wouldn’t want to be blessed by God? Because being blessed means…um…uh…hm, maybe we should examine this.
True, it says in V’ahavta (Deut. 11:13-15) that if I follow God’s commandments I’ll get rain in its season for my grain, wine and oil, and my cattle will have plenty to eat and…wait a minute…I don’t have any cattle. I’m not a farmer! And don’t we get water from the Colorado River or something?
But then in this week’s parasha it says that if I heed the Lord “There shall be no needy among you” (Deut. 15:4) I like the sound of that. Maybe being blessed means that everyone will have what they need. On the other hand, I know many people that have sufficient material wealth, but not happiness. They don’t seem blessed to me.
What, then exactly is blessing? I put the question of blessing and curse (b’racha and k’lalah) to my friend and teacher in Jerusalem, Rabbi Joel Zeff. The rabbi told me what I already suspected, that our notion of the meaning of blessing and curse is incorrect. What I didn’t suspect, is that a new interpretation of our relationship with God is implied in that misunderstanding.
Rabbi Zeff sent me a beautiful teaching from the great 19th-century commentator and scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch taught that k’lalah (curse) actually comes from the root Kal, meaning “light in weight.” He believes that the Torah is teaching us that the worst thing to do is to live a life devoid of an awareness of the Divine Presence, the ultimate vapid existence. That’s his idea of a curse.
The opposite of kal is kaveid, meaning heavy. This, says the rabbi, is the true meaning of b’racha (literally and etymologically), implying a life of substance and abundance, not only material, but also spiritual. And we achieve this blessed life through God’s mitzvot, not because we fear God’s judgement; God is protecting us from our own blindness and self-destructive tendencies. It’s up to us reveal God’s light in the world, because it’s good for us.
This idea can be found in the Hebrew word tishm’u, translated here as “obey.” But tishm’u comes from the same root as the word Sh’ma (listen), implying not mere robotic obedience, but compliance based on considered listening. When I mentioned this observation to Rabbi Zeff he pointed me to last week’s parasha, Eikev 10:12, which states the real reason for God’s commandments. As it says,
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in his paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God…for your own good.
So the “curse” that the Torah puts before us is really not punitive. The Torah is warning us that if we choose the “light-weight” path, the path of emptiness and absence, we do so to our own detriment. However, if we live a life of substance, of b’racha, our reward is blessing itself.
And maybe there is some reward for obediently following the California traffic laws. I’ll feel safer, and may even be safer. What a blessing.