by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses opens this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), by giving a choice to the Israelites who are camped at the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into Canaan.
See, I am setting before you today a brakhah and a kelalah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:26)
brakhah (בְּרָכָה) = blessing. (Plural: brakhot, בְּרָכוֹת. In the Torah humans are considered “blessed” by God when they have prosperity, good health, fertility, victory over enemies, and/or power over subordinates.)
kelalah (קִלָלָה) = curse. (This word for “curse” implies that the curse diminishes, belittles, or demeans the recipient.)
What do the people need to do to get the brakhah instead of the kelalah? Pay attention to God’s rules and refrain from worshiping other gods.
The brakhah: that you pay attention to the commands of God, your god, that I am commanding you today. And the kelalah: if you do not pay attention to the commands of God, your god, and you turn away from the path that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:27-28)
Moses does not say what good things will happen if the Israelites choose the blessing, nor what bad things will happen if they choose the curse. Instead he prescribes a ritual:
And it will be when God, your God, brings you to the land that you are entering to possess, you must give the brakhah on Mount Gezirim and the kelalah on Mount Evyal. (Deuteronomy 11:29)
He gives the location of the two hills,1 but he does not say what the people are to recite.2 Then he delivers a long list of laws about religious observance, beginning with a command to destroy the idols and shrines of the Canaanites.3 The implication is that if the Israelites obey these religious laws they will be blessed, and if they disobey they will be cursed.
Consequences of the Choice in Bechukotai
The Israelites are given a similar choice in Leviticus, in the Torah portion Bechukotai (“In my decrees”), when God declares:
If you walk in my decrees and you observe my commands and carry them out, then I will give you rains in their seasons, and the earth will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. And threshing will overlap vintage for you, and vintage will overlap sowing. And you will eat your food until you are sated, and you will dwell in safety in your land. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-5)
The passage continues by listing more blessings that will ensue if the Israelites obey God including the absence of dangerous wild beasts and human enemies in the land, victory in battle abroad, fertility and population increase, and the presence of God’s dwelling-place. Although God does not use the word brakhah, all of these benefits are standard blessings except for:
I will set my dwelling-place in your midst, and I will not vomit you out. And I will walk around in your midst, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. (Leviticus 26:11-12)
The dwelling-place of God is the Tent of Meeting in Exodus through Joshua, and the temple in Jerusalem from 1 Kings on. But the promise to walk around among the Israelites implies God will constantly be present.
After the blessings, God lists curses.
But if you do not pay attention to me and you do not follow all these commands … I for my part will do this to you: I will appoint terror over you, tuberculosis, and fever, wearing out eyes and wearing away vitality, and you will sow seed for nothing; your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you and you will be beaten by your enemies, and those who hate you will rule over you … (Leviticus 26:14, 16-17)
Although God does not use one of the words for “curse” here, the usual curses in the Torah also focus on sickness, famine, and subjugation to enemies.
In the portion Bechukotai God says that if, after these disasters, the Israelites still disobey God, there will be a severe drought. If the drought is not enough to make the people obedient, God will afflict them with wild beasts that kill children and livestock, starvation, subjugation, panic, and deportation to enemy nations.4
Both the blessings and the curses in Bechukotai are introduced by the word “if” (im, אִם). If the Israelites obey God, then they will be collectively rewarded with prosperity, fertility, safety, and God’s sanctuary. If they do not obey God, then they will be collectively punished with starvation, sickness, danger, and exile.
These blessings and curses apply to the Israelites as a whole; the word I translate above as “you” is consistently in the plural. Individual exceptions are not addressed. And, as usual in the Torah, no reference is made to any reward or punishment after death. People experience blessings and curses only during their lives.
Consequences of the Choice in Re-eih
Moses may have similar blessings and curses in mind in this week’s portion, Re-eih. But some commentators have noticed that in Re-eih the statement about the brakhah uses the word “asher” in place of the usual word “im” (if).
The brakhah: asher you pay attention to the commands of God, your god, that I am commanding you today. And the kelalah: im you do not pay attention to the commands of God, your God … (Deuteronomy 11:27-28)
asher (אֲשֶׁר) = that.
The implication might be that paying attention to God’s rules is in itself a blessing. If so, this is a new kind of blessing, absent from the choice between blessings and curses in Bechukotai.5
An 18th-century C.E. commentary called Or HaChayim explained: “Hearkening to G’d’s commandments is perceived as a pleasurable experience by itself. It helps the soul to feel ‘alive’ … Whenever someone who studies Torah gains an understanding of what the Torah has in mind he experiences a physical and spiritual sense of wellbeing. He owes G’d a debt of gratitude for affording him such pleasure. There is no need to add that such a person cannot demand a reward from G’d for having allowed him to experience such joy.”6
19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch reached a similar conclusion, although he interpreted the blessing as that you obey God’s rules. “The observance of God’s commandments is in itself part of the blessing. … The spiritual and moral act of faithfully observing the Torah constitutes in itself a blessed advancement of our whole being; hence, each time we carry out a mitzvah, we bring blessing upon ourselves.”7
Perhaps just as a kelalah is a diminishment, a brakhah is an enlargement. Those who choose to pay attention to God may be enlarged materially, with blessings of prosperity, fertility, etc.; or spiritually, with the blessing of an expansive and joyful soul.
This points to another meaning of the presence of God’s dwelling-place in the list of blessings in Bechukotai. Regardless of whether there is a temple or not, God will be present among the people who pay attention to God’s words and live by them. This kind of presence is indeed an enlargement.
If you live in a community of people who make bad choices, you will inevitably suffer for their mistakes and misdeeds. In a material sense, you will be cursed. Nevertheless if you, personally, choose to do the right thing, you will receive the blessing of becoming a better and more joyful person.8
Thus virtue becomes its own reward.
(I posted an earlier version of this essay in 2012.)
- Deuteronomy 11:30, near the ancient town of Shekhem. See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.
- The formula for the recital comes later, in Deuteronomy 27:11-28:48.
- Deuteronomy 12:1-31.
- Leviticus 26:18-33, followed by: “And those of you remaining, I will bring despair into your heart in the lands of your enemies. And you will pursue the sound of leaves being blown away, and you will flee as if you were fleeing from the sword, and they will fall when there are none pursuing. And you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.” (Leviticus 26:36-37) (This description could be based on the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E., with its mass deportations.)
- It is also absent from the Torah’s third and final list of blessings and curses, Deuteronomy 28:1-48.
- Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in sefaria.org.
- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 231 on 11:27.
- In some parts of the bible (which was, after all, written down by fallible humans), the God-character demands actions that are not ethical. Paying attention to the bible should include discerning which commands are divinely inspired ethical principles.