This week’s reading portion of the Torah includes, in Deuteronomy chapter 28, blessings and curses even though there does not seem to be a logical proportion between the two. “Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments… All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God.” These blessings are detailed in only fourteen verses. It is a totally different story when it comes to cursing. “But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” These curses are detailed in no less than fifty five sentences, almost four times as many as the blessings.
The blessing are nice and there is nothing bad to say about them. “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts…” We even find this blessing, “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath…” Certainly important blessings in the context of the quickly approaching High Holy Days. However, when comparing these blessings to the threat of curses the mind finds it difficult to comprehend. “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the offspring of your [r]body and the produce of your ground…” And also, “The Lord will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed. The Lord will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart; and you will]grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways…” And as if that is not bad enough, there is also more, “ou shall bring out much seed to the field but you will gather in little, for the locust will consume it. You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them. You shall have olive trees throughout your territory but you will not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives will drop off.” Admittedly, quite vindictive, with these not even being the worst of the curses.
While it may spin our heads we do need to understand what it is all about as in our daily lives we seem to encounter those who keep all the laws and commandments and yet suffer from every possible difficulty in their lives, tripping over each and every obstacle. At the same time we also observe those who are wicked and cannot understand why their ways are seemingly successful, contradicting the very essence of the promises made here. We should read from the beginning of Ki Tavo to better understand what it is all about. It starts with, “Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, 2 that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name.” There is also a request, “you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and your household”. There is also a demand to make a declaration, “I have removed the sacred portion from my house, and also have given it to the Levite and the alien, the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed or forgotten any of Your commandments. 14 I have not eaten of it while mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor offered any of it to the dead. I have listened to the voice of the Lord my God; I have done according to all that You have commanded me.”
In other words we may argue that the basis of maintaining the commandments and the laws is not about literal performance but rather about adopting their spirit. The memory from where we came, our national history is the one that obliges us today to build a society that is founded upon justice and equality, remembering that in Egypt we did not enjoy such treatment. It was a place of slavery, of humiliation, and oppression. We want and have to be different. This I think is also the reason to the difference in length of the blessings and curses. When the social system is unjust and unfair bad things slowly drip into it, one by one, drop by drop, one after the other society goes corrupt. When a blessing comes upon us we are glad to receive and embrace it and therefore not much of it is needed in order to get to a better place.
The second general elections of this year are now over. Not much has changed, it may seem. Yet, elections at an unintended time, even though part of the democratic process here in Israel, do not necessarily speak of a blessing. Many of us have gone out to cast their vote in the ballot, each according to their political preference. It is important to understand that just like a company’s balance sheet, the results of the election merely reflect the people’s preference on a particular day of the year. It can be different in other days. It is therefore that it is our duty to help our elected members of Knesset to wisely select between two different baskets, the basket of blessings which is small and modest, or the basket of curses, which is big and heavy. Towards the end of the Jewish year of 5779 the blessing “shall this year and its curses cease, and shall next year and its blessings begin” – hopefully our elected representatives will find a wise and responsible way to lead the nation in the coming years in ways that lead to baskets full of blessings.
Reuven Marko, 20 September 2019, 21 Elul, 5779