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Parsha Re-eh

08/29/2022 11:04:24 PM


Robert Jobrack

(Adapted from D’var Torah 27Aug 2022 by Rob Jobrack)

Torah, and particularly the Book of D’varim (Deuternonomy) is full of references to Blessings and Curses, stating that those who fulfill mistzvot (commandments) will be blessed, and those who choose otherwise will suffer curses.   Torah details the blessings and lists the curses that will ensue if we make the wrong choices.   

Is Torah really telling us that if we, do the right thing and we’ll be rewarded with material goods and a healthy life and if we do the wrong thing and you'll be punished?  Is that the message?

Well, no. I don’t think so.

Rabbi Bradly Artson, writing for American Jewish University a few years ago points out:

“… we know that the world doesn’t work that way, that many people abide by the teachings of the Torah and still suffer accidents, illness, and tragedy, just as many violate the mitzvot and prosper with both wealth and health. While the (curses) may have functioned to keep our ancestors in line, with us it is mostly a stumbling block, tripping us up with its primitive sense of a punishing God.

Referencing Maimonedes, Rabbi Artson continues:   

Now all this is deplorable. However, it is unavoidable because of people’s limited insight, as a result of which they make the goal of wisdom something other than wisdom itself…. A good man must not wonder “If I perform these commandments, which are virtues, and if I refrain from these transgressions, what will I get out of it?” …. Our sages have already warned us about this. They said that one should not make the goal of one’s service of God or of doing the commandments anything in the world of things. However, our sages knew that this is a very difficult goal to achieve and that not everyone could achieve it.… Therefore, in order that the masses stay faithful and do the commandments, it was permitted to tell them that they might hope for a reward and warn them against transgressions out of fear of punishment.

The Torah utilizes the language of b’rakhot (blessings) and of tokhakhah (curses) to provide an artificial inducement toward righteousness. In every phase of our lives, we alternate between doing the mitzvot because we know it to be the right thing to do and because we believe we can make a deal with God (“I’ll be good, and in exchange, You will protect me and my loved ones from all mishap.”) While it might be nice for the world to work that way, the grown-up in each of us knows that it isn’t so.

Clearly, Jews have known for hundreds if not thousands of years that this is not how things work.

So, what is the teaching for us here today?  I offer three interpretations:

First, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat on her blog the Velveteen Rabbi notes that

 Torah is telling us that following the mitzvot is, itself, the blessing. And that being alienated from our Source is, itself, the experience of being cursed.  The word mitzvah -- you probably know this -- means commandment. You may or may not know that it's related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or join. Mitzvah can be understood to mean not only commandment, but also connection.

I love the idea of the mitzvot as connections. They connect us with God. They connect us with our tradition. They connect us with other human beings and with the earth. They connect us with ourselves.

When we do these mitzvot, we feel connected to God, and that's our blessing.

When we turn away from this path and become distracted by the constant chatter of email and twitter and Facebook and obligations; when we imagine that our to-do list at work is more important than really connecting with our family on Shabbat; when we value money and privilege more than we value kindness and caring -- then we're disconnected from God.

Second, there is the curious grammar at the beginning of the parsha: “See” or “Behold”, the first word of the parsha, is singular.  But the rest of the language is plural.  Each individual must see so that the people, Israel, will be blessed or cursed.

Going back to Rabbi Artson again: 

“…the truth is that the notion of sin having negative consequences is literally true, just not for each individual, nor for each particular sin.  A culture in which people live by greed, cruelty, and force, in which compassion and doing good are belittled as idealistic and foolish is one in which there will be less trust, more violence, more pollution, more hostility. There are curses that accompany the choice not to live by God’s laws, and they are as inexorable as the night following the day. But they are true for the community as a whole, not for each individual in the community.

Perhaps, then, we need to see our every deed as swinging the balance. If we dedicate ourselves to living God’s will, to doing the mitzvot, we can swing society toward goodness, toward justice, toward kindness. And then God’s blessings will flow on all. Or we can choose to elevate the pursuit of our own private happiness to our highest ideal, and continue to watch as our society and our planet erode.

A third message comes from the late Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, who wrote many times about an adage of our Founding Fathers.   

            "We can't guarantee success, we can do something better, we can deserve it."

Washington and Adams used it their writings but it really comes from the play Cato by Joseph Addison, popular among our late 18th century founders.

McCullough writes: It means that what happens, the outcome of what happens, is … out of our hands. But how we behave, how we perform, how we measure up, that's something we can control.

This sentiment --- It is better to deserve success than to actually achieve it -- is very, very Jewish to me.  In our religion, in our teachings, it is way better to deserve success ---to follow mitzvot --- than it is to “be successful” in the modern sense of material rewards, honors, and accolades.  The latter rewards can happen due to random events, just as misfortune, pain and adversity are often due to events we can’t control.

We can control ---we can choose --- what Mitzvot we fulfill, and let’s not forget the true meaning of the blessings and curses we earn.

Shabbat Shalom

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784