This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is part of a campaign by young rabbinical and religious students about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality. Read the full series here.
Blessings and curses, curses and blessings.
Last week’s parsha – Ki Tavo – is full of them. But mostly curses. The curses outweigh the blessings by a considerable margin. And the word “curses” doesn’t really convey the force of the words. When I hear “curse” I think of some kind of cute formula pronounced by a magician; cute because I don’t believe in magic curses; cute and therefore harmless. But these curses are anything but cute and harmless. They are terrible. They are the worst things that happen to people. They are so awful that when read in synagogue, the longest list of them – and there is more than one list of curses in this parashah! – is jammed into one aliyah and recited in a soft voice. They are so terrible I won’t even repeat them here. They are not cute or magical, they are precisely what we fear happening most. The weight of the curses seems to crowd out the blessings; it feels overwhelming.
It’s a lot like living in this moment in history…
These days it can seem like the curses far outweigh the blessings. Here in the US and around the world. Just like in our parashah, they are not cute, and they are not harmless. They are the worst things that could happen to people. They are so awful that I won’t even repeat them here. They are at least some of the things that we fear happening most, yet they are happening. The curses in our parashah and those we see around us seem to cloud over the sun of blessing and then keep getting worse, gathering terrifying momentum like an approaching hurricane of more than natural force. And just like in our parashah, I think I am not alone in saying that they feel truly, truly overwhelming.
Torah is addressing us here, as it often does, less on a rational level than on a gut level, a subconscious level. Here, it is reflecting back to us our worst fears. Yet Torah also reflects back to us another level of our subconscious: our fondest dreams and most cherished hopes. Those are the blessings. And on balance, despite what this parashah presents to us on one level, the Torah gives us at least as much hope as it reminds us of our fears.
In some ways, all of Torah lays before us, in the words of next week’s parashah, “the blessing and the curse,” and it is an attempt to answer the question of how to “choose life, so that you may live.” Torah attempts to answer this because we want to answer this. But Torah is long because there is no one answer, and none of the answers are simple.
I offer some beginnings of one answer from our parashah; there are many more to explore in the months to come.
Looking at the parashah as a whole – indeed the whole of the book of Devarim and most of the Torah itself – we see that Torah tells us this is about us — the blessings and curses are presented as responses to our actions. Specifically, the blessings and curses are responses to whether we establish an ethical society or not. The parashah tells us that a series of warnings are to be pronounced when the people enter the land – each of them is a warning not to violate a specific ethical precept; one who violates them will be cursed. The list of blessings and the list of curses that follows are said to be dependent on whether or not the people observe God’s commandments, and while these commandments may well refer to all the varied commandments of the Torah, all the commandments mentioned in this parashah are ethical commandments, the precepts of a just society. Ethical behavior leads to blessing, oppression and social wrongs lead to curses. The Torah puts the power to tip the scales of blessing and curse in our hands.
On one level, this is encouraging and empowering. The Torah truly has immense faith in our ability to tip the balance towards blessing, and that faith can inspire us to rise to the challenge. And we so often do! Just as the list of curses we see around us is too lengthy to recite, so too the list of holy undertakings that people here and around the world are engaged in to promote blessing is far, far too long to recite.
But at the same time this power that the Torah seems to invest in us can feel like too great a burden. Does this mean the overwhelming tragedies unfolding all around us are our fault, because we didn’t do enough, we somehow acted wrong? It can even feel unfair, because indeed things are going off the rails despite our efforts.
A Hasidic master known as the Tiferet Uziel addressed the same fear that this is just too great a burden. On the one hand, he says, this parashah tells us “If you do not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, actively observing all God’s commandments and statutes… all these curses will come upon you…” (Devarim 28:15). It seems that perfection is demanded of us; perhaps all of these curses are because we have failed at our task. But this is not the case. Every single mitzvah contains all the mitzvot, says the Tiferet Uziel, so in doing one of them you are fulfilling all of them. If we do the thing that is within our ability towards building an ethical society, we are considered as tipping the scales towards blessing. But not mere performance of the mitzvah is what is required. Rather, says the Tiferet Uziel, we must do at least one mitzvah joyfully, and only then are we considered as if we had done them all and moved towards blessing. Why is joy required? The answer is also in our parashah: In the middle of the long list of curses, another reason for the curses is given, not the generic failure to fulfill all the commandments, but something much more specific: “Because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and with a glad heart over the abundance of everything.” Conversely, if we act with joy, we are promoting blessing. Doing our part to build a just society with joy and in a sense of gratitude for the abundance we do have is enough.
This is true of everything we do that points towards justice, but the parashah gives us an even more specific joyful means of tipping the scales towards blessing, and one that could not be more timely in a week in which the President rescinded DACA, the program that allowed undocumented immigrants who came here as children to work legally in the US. Upon entering the land, the people are to offer their first fruits to God. While doing so we were required to recite a line that later became famous for its appearance in the Pesach Haggadah: “Arami oved avi…” – “My father was a wandering/fugitive/desperate Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers.” In this culminating moment of accomplishment, we remember that we are descended from homeless people fleeing a famine who sought refuge in the wealthiest state in the region. Not only that, we are then enjoined to “enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” Here, we are given a specific mitzvah to perform joyfully – that of sharing our abundance with the immigrant and the landless – just like the Tiferet Uziel suggested with any mitzvah. The focus on the immigrant continues: the very next commandment is to share a tenth of your produce with the Levite – that is, the landless – the stranger – that is, the immigrant – the orphan, and the widow. All of this – the ritual remembrance in a moment of gratitude of having been refugees, the joyful sharing of bounty with the landless and the immigrant, and the commandment to continually set aside a portion of one’s wealth for the immigrant and the disenfranchised – are all preludes to a request for blessing, the first in the parashah. Through joyfully constructing a society that recognizes and provides for the immigrant and the disenfranchised, we are increasing blessing.
In our time, we can joyfully fulfill the commandment of protecting the stranger and ensuring their dignity by standing with DACA recipients and the other undocumented immigrants under threat. And more broadly, we can bring an attitude of joyfully sharing abundance to our relationships with immigrants, both financially and otherwise, recognizing how vital they are to our lives, and how integral they are to who we are as a nation. The curses are numerous and they are awful, but by doing what we can to build a just society and doing it joyfully – with gratitude, with the best of ourselves – we are doing our part to tip the scales towards blessing.