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Parashat Re’eh

August 31, 2011

By Rabbi Dorit Edut and Cantor Liat Pelman

A Dialogue on Blessings vs. “Curses

Dorit: As we approach the month of Elul next week and thoughts of Rosh HaShanah are not far off, we are confronted by a verse in this week’s Torah portion:

“See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God….” (Deut.11:26-28, NewJPS translation).

How do we understand this verse really? Is this loving, all-powerful God also One who “curses” humans?

Liat: I am so grateful that you chose to put the word “curses” in quotation marks. Reading the Torah literally, as in this verse, is a turn-off for me; I relate to the saying: Life is hard, but God is good-all the time.

Dorit: Let’s look at the meaning of the Hebrew word klalah, translated as “curse.” In the Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon, the root means “slight, swift, trifling” and is from the Assyrian word kalalu, meaning “despise, dishonor.” The Oxford English dictionary, however, defines “curse” as “to call upon divine or supernatural power to send injury upon, to bring great evil upon.” How do we connect these meanings?

Maybe these “curses” have to do with the consequences for living our lives a particular way? Perhaps if we take the gift of life “lightly” or “trivialize” it by not following the Law, then God “injures” us by having others “despise” us. God also regards our lives as “trifling”: they end “swiftly” and are easily forgotten. Having “blessings” then would mean taking our lives seriously, living by the Law, making positive differences for others so something valuable endures.

Liat: If God regards our lives as “trifling,” then God wouldn’t care about us, and there’d be no need for punishments or blessings. The text instead shows the opposite: the warning indicates that God cares about us, much like a parent who lovingly warns a child against crossing the street at a dangerous spot.

Let’s go back to the idea of consequences and introduce another concept. In Deuteronomy 12:10:

“When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit and He give you rest/safety from all your enemies around you so that you live in security…”

I interpret the “crossing of the Jordan” as evolving, rising above temptation or Yetzer HaRa. The “enemies” here are Yetzer HaRa which should not be regarded as something negative because it is an integral part of a human being. On the contrary, because of this we have the opportunity to exercise the most important of all human blessings- free will. Of course, the consequences will depend on our choices.

Dorit:Yetzer HaRa and Yetzer HaTov are very much a part of determining our “curses” and our “blessings” in life. When we give in to our Yetzer HaRa and act in “ungodly” ways, then there is a consequence or “curse” which follows. We may not SEE this at first (as the name of this portion calls our attention to “seeing”- Re’eh- our lives), but eventually we get the connection. For example, think of the life of Bernard Madoff.

Yetzer HaTov, however, helps us to see both the blessings in our lives and to act to bring further blessings into this world.

Liat: I agree. Sometimes we see the results of the universal law of attraction (cause and effect) in this life. However, I believe that everything we do, say, or think now will follow us to future lives. Basically, it is important to be good now and to improve “yesterday’s” wrong choices for the sake of “today” and “tomorrow.”

To me there is no such thing as a curse. I’m on a journey of learning and it didn’t start in this lifetime. If I made wrong choices before, I have to return and fix it in order to balance it. Where is God in all this? HaShem is a Conductor Who oversees the evolution of my soul, Someone Who guides, protects and cares for me, and sometimes “shakes me up” when needed.

Sometimes I ask why some people feel “cursed”? My answer is: because we forget to count our blessings. When blessings are overlooked, life becomes a “curse”.

Dorit: I do agree that we should count our blessings daily, adding to those in our Shaharit prayers. In conclusion: let us live so that any “curses” can become pathways to blessings.


Rabbi Dorit Edut (Detroit) and Cantor Liat Pelman-Forst (Staten Island) were ordained at AJR in 2006; though geographically distant, they are always close in heart.