Blessings and Curses

Moshe Kempinski

Moshe Rabbeinu relates the following declaration to his people as he speaks to them in the last 37 days of his life;

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of HaShem your G.d, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of HaShem your G.d, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.( Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

What in essence then are “Blessings and Curses”.

Later in Deuteronomy HaShem declares :”Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of HaShem your G.d, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the HaShem your G.d will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of HaShem your G.d:(Deut 28 1-2)

HaShem declares the opposite as well “But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of HaShem your G.d, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: “( ibid:15) From here it would seem that blessings and curses are a form of reward and punishment.

Yet we must remember that this is the same Moshe who ponders and asks the classic question of our mortal reality. This is the same question repeated by Job and which painfully resurfaces throughout human history. ” Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee”( Exodus 33:13). The question essentially is that If there is such a concept of “reward and punishment” ,then why is it that we sometimes seemingly see the opposite ?

Perhaps, then, we need to re-examine our definitions of “blessings and curses” Such an exploration will not resolve the eternal questions but such an exploration may help to provide some clarity and direction.

The Ramban explains that in our portion Moshe is describing the blessings and the curses as choices of differing paths of life. In the first verse we are given the choice between living in the midst of “blessing” or G.d forbid in the midst of the opposite. Then in the second verse he explains what “blessing” actually is; “that you will heed the commandments of HaShem your G.d, which I command you today.” Then Moshe goes on to explain what “curse” is “if you do not hearken to the commandments of G.d and stray from G.d’s commandments that I commanding you today.” Is it then just an issue of obedience to the call of the Holy?

To fully understand this we must further explore the meaning of the Hebrew words for blessing and curses ,-Bracha and Klala.

The word “Bracha” is rooted in two similar thought constructs. We see that when the servant of Avraham , Eliezer, brought his camels to the well where he meets Rebecca, he caused his camels to bend their knees.” And he made the camels to kneel down ( VaYivrach) without the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time that women go out to draw water. “( Genesis 24 :11).
“Bracha” then is connected to a bending and a posture of humility. The word “Bracha” is also related to the Hebrew word “L’havrich” . This word describes the agricultural process of the pulling down of a vine and placing part of the branch in the ground so that it can sprout new roots and begin to grow a renewed plant.

In both cases growth is preceded by a humble bending and then followed by an upward growth. Blessing then is not so much a “raising” but rather it is first a “lowering”. That is to say lowering into the world and our lives a power and strength that comes from on high. Once that humble acceptance from on high occurs there is a resurgence and revitalization of the strengths and potential already ensconced and found within. That is the power of blessing. Humility followed by reconnecting to one’s inner spiritual roots and strength that result in an unleashing of that potential.

Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsh points out that the word for curse Kelalah is as related to the word in Hebrew Kalil which describes a state of lightness and emptiness of substance. If something is empty of any inner potential one may continue to survive but remains in a state of stagnation and emptiness.

“Bracha” then is a state of reconnection, growth and upward movement. “Kelalah” is a state of stagnation and emptiness. That is the meaning of the verse in psalms” Blessed are you to HaShem ( Bruchim Atem LaShem )who made heaven and earth.”(psalm 115:15).King David is describing the joys of being rooted in Hashem ,like the vines in a vineyard

Moshe in this Torah portion is telling his people, as they stand before entering into their new life that they need to choose ,take a stand and to move forward otherwise they will stagnate and die. That message consistently stands before all of us in all the major junctions in our own lives. Therefore it is also not happenstance that we are reading these words just as we enter the great month of Elul. This is the month where we are enjoined by the kindness and mercy of HaShem to make new and clearer choices in our own lives and in the life of this nation as we approach the Awesome days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

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