Usually, when someone promises you a reward, he or she tells you what the reward will be, not just the conditions for receiving it. When someone threatens you, he or she doesn’t just tell you what would trigger their response but what he or she is in fact threatening to do. It’s hard to motivate someone by just insisting, “Something good will happen if you clean your room and something bad if you don’t.” Motivation is better reinforced by concrete consequences – “If you clean your room, then you can have dessert!” and “If you don’t clean your room, then you won’t get dessert!”

Strangely enough, the Torah seems to ignore this insight in Parshat Re’eh. It begins with Moshe saying that the Jewish People should “see that [Moshe is] placing before [them] a blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). We now expect the Torah to inform us of the conditions under which they will receive the blessing or curse and descriptions of what each will entail. Will they live in peace? Will they be exiled? However, Moshe just says, “The blessing such that you listen to the commandments G-d commands you today and the curse if you do not listen to the commandments of G-d and turn away from the path that I am commanding today to follow other gods that you have not known” (ibid. 11:27-28). He never says what the content of the blessing and the curse actually are!

Rashi explains that the verse means to only tell us the conditions under which we would receive each result. “The blessing is,” in the words of Rashi, “on the condition that you listen.” The Ramban understands the verse to be telling us at least part of the texts of the blessings and curses themselves. The verse means to say, “The blessing is, ‘If you listen to the commandments G-d commands you today…’” and “The curse is, ‘If you do not listen to the commandments of G-d and turn away from the path…’” Moshe never intended to say the full text of the blessing and curse but just to establish the form in which they will be said by the Levites. Rashi’s and Ramban’s answers are both technical explanations to get around this problem.

However, a more fundamental answer[1] may be drawn from Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 9:1). The Rambam explains that when the Torah writes what the consequences of mitzvot or sins, it is not telling us the reward. It is telling us that the result of doing a mitzvah is that it enables one to do another mitzvah. Hashem makes it easier for the righteous to do more good. The reverse is true for sinners – the more they sin, the harder G-d will make it for them to repent and turn things around.

The Torah does tell us the content of the blessing and curse. The blessing that results from fulfilling a mitzvah is “that you will listen to the commandments”; the blessing is the opportunity to fulfill more mitzvot and to become closer with G-d. The curse that comes from violating the Torah is increased likelihood of sinning again, of becoming further distanced from G-d, of “turning away from the path.” The end of each verse tells us not only the conditions for receiving the blessing and the curse but content of the blessing and the curse themselves. The Abarbanel, furthermore, says that there is intrinsic value in doing a mitzvah such that each mitzvah is itself a blessing when we fulfill it and violating G-d’s command makes the mitzvah itself a curse.

The explanations of the Rambam and the Abarbanel highlight the fact that mitzvot are not just opportunities to earn physical or spiritual rewards. They are acts that both add meaning to our lives and help us grow in ways we could not have otherwise imagined. With each dollar of charity we donate, we become more caring people and more likely to donate in the future. As a friend of mine once said, “it’s easier to always go to minyan always than almost always go to minyan.” Each mitzvah we do is a blessing because it makes us better people and enables us to continue to progress towards becoming an ideal nation, one that represents Torah values and walks in G-d’s footsteps.

The above concept also has important ramifications for our embattled Jewish State.  In the midst of decades of war and ceaseless threats to Israel’s security, it is easy to become caught up in the moment, to be complacent with the assumption that we will forever be at war, to get used to fighting and defending, to think that military and civilian casualties are a normal part of life. The more often we stay involved in conflict, the more it becomes the norm, and the further we move away from peace. Conversely, the more we pursue peace, the more likely we are to achieve it. To keep the potential for peace alive, we still need to constantly remind ourselves that war and violence is not normal, it is not something we want or hope for and it is unacceptable as a long-term reality.

Fighting cannot be our go-to solution for every problem and it often doesn’t solve the fundamental issues at stake. Nations that never fight wars do not have to defend their actions to the anti-Semites of the world. We need to abhor war and violence and, while we shouldn’t hesitate to use it in our defense, as in Operation Protective Edge, we should never think that it is an ideal. We ultimately desire an Israel in which we would not have to resort to Iron Domes, bomb shelters, and army reserves that are in constant preparation for war. For now, we will continue to fight and pray that Hashem protect the Jewish State: Hashem oz l’amo yiten. But in due course, may we speedily experience the end of the verse, a blessing of peace: Hashem yivarekh et amo bashalom.

 

[1] Thanks to Ariel Diamond for pointing me in this direction.