Moses opens this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), by giving a choice to the Israelites camped at the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into Canaan.
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of God, your god, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of God, your god, and you rebel from the path that I command you today, to walk after other gods that you did not know. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:26-28)
The Torah does not say here what material results will come from God’s blessing or God’s curse. But results can be inferred, either by looking at a parallel passage in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, or by paying attention to several words in the passage above that are usually unimportant, and often mistranslated.
asher = that, which, whom
im = if
First let’s compare the warning in this week’s Torah portion with the two alternatives presented in Leviticus. If you follow my decrees and observe my commandments and do them (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3), God says, using the plural form of “you”, then God will make it rain in the right seasons, so you will have abundant crops and eat your fill; God will grant peace in your land, keeping away both vicious beasts and swords; God will give you many offspring; and God will always be present in your midst.
But if you do not listen to me and you to do not do all these commandments (Leviticus 26:14), God continues, then God will afflict you with diseases, and crop failure, and wild beasts that kill your children and livestock, and enemies with swords who besiege you until you commit cannibalism and starve to death.
Words for blessing and curse are absent from the passage in Leviticus, but elsewhere in the Torah the word brakhah (“blessing”) implies an increase in fertility, health, and prosperity–as indicated in the list of results for following God’s decrees and commandments in Leviticus. The word for “curse” used in this week’s Torah portion, kelalah, implies diminishment in status and power, as well as disgrace and falling into a lower state of being. These conditions do seem to be graphically illustrated in the results given in Leviticus for disobeying God’s commandments.
Furthermore, obeying God’s commandments is what makes the difference in both the passage in Leviticus and the one in Deuteronomy this week. So it would be reasonable to assume that the two alternatives in Leviticus represent the results of God’s blessing and God’s curse.
Yet some Torah commentary draws a different conclusion, based on the words asher (“that”) and im (“if”).
In Leviticus, both the good result and the bad result are introduced by “if”; if you people obey God, then you will be collectively rewarded in life; if you people do not listen and do not obey every commandment, then you will be collectively punished in life. (Individual exceptions are not addressed, and as usual in the Torah, no reference is made to any reward or punishment after death.)
But this week, in Deuteronomy, the original Hebrew says: The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of God, your god, that I command you today. (11:27)
Some English translations change the word asher (“that”) into an “if”. But two major 19th-century commentators, the mystical rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (in Sefat Emet) and the scientific grammarian rabbi Meir Leibush (a.k.a. Malbim), argued that the original sentence means the blessing is listening to and obeying God’s commandments. Virtue is its own reward, because listening to God and doing good deeds elevates and expands your soul. Sefat Emet says that the choice between the path of blessing and the path of curse lies before everyone, at all times; and the reward for choosing the right path is to advance to the next choice, the next opportunity to choose good, as you climb higher on the ladder.
This interpretation speaks to me, not only because I care about the original words in Hebrew, but also because it moves from the communal blessing implied by the Torah’s plural “you” to an inidividual, personal blessing. If you live in a community of people who make bad choices, you will inevitably suffer materially for their mistakes and misdeeds. In a material sense, you will be cursed. Nevertheless, if you, personally, choose what is good and right, you will get the more important reward of becoming a better person.