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Blessings and Curses

At the end of the traditional Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after the Meal, is a verse from the Book of Psalms that reads, “Once I was young and now I have grown old but I have never seen a righteous person abandoned nor his children begging for food” (Psalm 37:25). It is one of a series of biblical verses acknowledging God as the one who sustains all. There are many ways to sing the verse but I was taught to drop my voice when I came to this passage and recite it in a whisper. Why? Because it is not an accurate statement of life as we know it and it may be a source of pain to one with whom we may have eaten.

In the course of my rabbinic career, having shared many meals with many good souls who happen to be infirm, impoverished, abandoned and lost, I have come to appreciate that lesson of spiritual sensitivity. The world in which we live is far too complicated to be explained by the simple moral calculus that the righteous are rewarded and that the wicked punished. Yet, this apparently simple equation seems to play an important role in the faith of our Biblical ancestors. The lists of blessings and curses that appear in this Behukotay at the end of the Book of Leviticus, as well as a similar list at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, appear to support the belief that success and prosperity with bless those obedient to the our peoples’ Covenant with the Eternal and that defeat and disaster will curse those who disobey it and ignore its directives.

But our ancestors were not simple people. They were aware that in our present world the dream of proportional reward for good and evil was no more than a false vision. Our Bible testifies that their spiritual understanding of the mystery of God’s justice was far more subtle than the simple equation of reward and punishment. The Book of Job demolishes the quid pro quo explanation of suffering and many of our most comforting psalms express the pain and sorrows of the good and pious. They knew, as we know, that life in the present world does not follow such simple rules.

So we should not read the listings of blessings and curses such as the one that appears in this week’s portion as a description of the world in which we live, but rather as a vision of the world as it should be. It is an affirmation of our ancestors’ faith in God’s sovereignty and their belief that in some future time God’s dominion will be manifest in its fullness. By its use of blessings and curses, our Torah employs the literary traditions of the Ancient Near East to express God’s sovereignty. Law codes from ancient Mesopotamia, such as the Laws of Hammurabi, often conclude with a description of the blessings and curses that the divine patron of the code will visit upon those who obey or disobey its regulations. Scholars have pointed out that parallels between Ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties, including lists of blessings and curses similar to those found in our portion, underscore lasting, covenantal relationship between the people Israel and our Divine Ruler.

Our ancestors understood that at this moment God’s sovereignty is not fully present, but some day all would be set right. Their world was, as our world remains, a dangerous place. Their homeland, the land of Israel, was a small nation surrounded by enemies. Their economic survival depended on the unpredictable winter rains. Prosperity, health and longevity were all too often fleeting dreams. The promise of a future restoration of the fortunes of Israel after a period of judgment which concludes the section on blessings and curses in our portion expresses their faith in a secure and just future.

The blessings and curses so carefully presented in here do not reflect a facile understanding of reward and punishment. Our ancestors knew that life and its challenges could not be so simply explained. The blessings and curses which we read as we come to the end of the Book of Leviticus are not a stark description of our world but a hopeful dream of a better and more just future. They express in the style and context of an ancient Near Eastern law code the poetic vision of the Psalmist that some day in the future all creation will rejoice as the God comes forth to rule the earth.

“Let the heavens be glad, let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar and all within it give praise.
Let the field and all within it exult;
Let all the trees of the forest sing before the Eternal;
Before the Eternal, as he comes;
He comes to rule the earth,
To rule the world in righteousness,
And the nations by his truth.”
(Psalm 96)

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