The blessing and curse


This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, Deuteronomy: 11:26-16:17.

From the beginning of parsha Re’eh through the next several Torah portions, we find many mitzvot. This parsha contains the command to destroy the place of idol worship; we are forbidden private alters, forbidden the eating of blood. We are given instructions about false prophets and laws of kashrut regarding eating of permitted and not eating forbidden animals. The last part of this sidra includes tithing, the year of release, and ends with the three pilgrimage festivals, the regalim.

In Deuteronomy 11:26, we are presented with a vision of what the future might be: “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse,” the blessing if you pay attention to the commandments, and a curse if you do not.

Why not say, “I set before you the choice of blessing or not blessing”? Why does the “curse” have to be injected? Does it make the statement more impressive?

Many times, I have been surprised that people have not given thought to the principle of blessing, saying a blessing, recognizing a blessing, accepting a blessing and being grateful for a blessing. It is part of the essence of Judaism that performing mitzvot and connecting them to their parallel words for the blessing is a given.

When someone does not accept this principle, and even rejects it, I find it disturbing. Rashi explains that the “blessing and the curse” would be set out as a choice; in the future there would be some ritual which was explained by Moses and which would occur on Har Gerizim and Har Ebal.

The Ramban says that the “blessing and the curse” is more general: Do this and you are blessed; don’t do this and watch out. Living in a time of apathy toward religion and the rejection of the concept of blessing, could there be another approach? The rejection of the mitzvot and blessings can be viewed not so much as a curse, but as the failure to have a philosophy of life which helps us to have a coherent system of living and community.

The nihilist approach believes there is no connection, no cause and effect in life. We also know that intense evil can be the result of not expecting consequences for breaking the law or trust. Biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno says that “the choice to ‘see’ can be the very spiritual in nature, which can inspire the Jewish people” — and then humanity — to strive to be the best or among the best. How? When we listen to the teaching of the Torah.

In Deuteronomy 15:4 we read that “there shall be no poor among you,” and then in 15:11 we read, “for there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” These phrases contradict each other. The ideal presented is that we should strive to eliminate poverty through debt forgiveness, tzedakah and social justice.

For most of my life, I have heard about the Scandinavian countries and how their network of social support has worked to eradicate poverty and illiteracy. In Israel today, we see the need for greater support due to health issues, aging and dislocation of entire communities from other countries. Israel has absorbed an enormous number of new immigrants while providing work and the support of a social network.

How do we choose “the blessing or the curse,” which we read at the beginning of the sidra? We are shown the way to perform blessings by opening our hands to the needy. Those in need provide us with the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvot. Then we have hope that we will be on the way to fulfilling that “there shall be no poor among you” — the ideal that is presented.

Questions to consider:

1. How are the regalim connected to the mitzvah of tzedakah?

2. According to Rashi, who do you care for first: close relations or the poor of the city?

3. Which is better: tzedakah or kind words?

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is rabbi of Hevrat Shalom in King Farm, Congregation Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf.

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