Are the Curses in the Torah really Blessings in disguise?
By viewing the troubles and joys of our lives as part of a continuum we can uncover blessings even in the most challenging curses.
Are the blessings and curses really polar opposites? Might they be opposite ends of the same continuum?
At times the pain that we encounter in our lives is overwhelming and seems insurmountable. In such moments, the philosophy of Heschel, the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, the wisdom of Frankl, may seem beyond our grasp. All these teachers chose to find the relationship between curses and blessings, and we are left wondering how they were able to make that choice.
One way to understand the interconnection between curses and blessings can be found at the beginning of this week’s portion. Moses teaches the Israelites the importance of expressing gratitude for all that God has given them: They are free, they are blessed with plenty to eat, and they have good leadership. Any similarities between those troubling times and our times today is no coincidence. Moses teaches the Israelites about tithing, explaining that ten percent of their crops should be given to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. When performed with a generous spirit and a grateful heart, their actions will bring them blessings from God.
In order to find gratitude during challenging life situations, we have to look beyond ourselves and, at the same time, deep within ourselves. Doing that requires a tremendous amount of inner strength, which we can draw from the support of our community and God’s loving-kindness. In combination, our friends and our faith can enable us to transcend the challenge and find a blessing embedded within a curse–and perhaps even convert a curse into a blessing.
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves (Victor E. Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, 1984, p. 135).
“I will remember My covenant with Yaacov and also My covenant with Yitzchak; I will also remember My covenant with Avraham and I will remember the Land”.
The Parasha begins with nine verses of reward if we choose to obey Hashem. Following this, there is an extended elaboration of curses if we choose not to. The verse above is quoted within these verses of curses. How is Hashem remembering the covenant of the fathers and the Land a bad thing? Some commentators have explained that this is indeed expressing a problem. It would be one thing if a nation sins, but for the nation that descended from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov, which has such a strong bond with the Holy Land of Israel – it is far worse.
The Tokheha (Admonishment) refers to these passages of curses that Moses relayed to the Israelites by way of moral lesson and warning. These curses are repeated twice in the Torah, in Parashat Be-Hukotai (Lev. 26:14-46) (read last week in the synagogue) and in Parashat Ki-Tavo (Deut. 28:15-69).
In the Mishnah, these verses are called curses (kelalot). They were customarily read on public fast days, as the Mishnah (Megillah 3,6) informs us: “On fast days, [one reads] blessings and curses,” and on other set occasions, as stated in the baraitha (Megillah 31b): “It is taught: Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says: Ezra instituted that the Israelites read the curses in Torat Kohanim (=Leviticus) prior to Atzeret (Shavuot), and those in Deuteronomy prior to the New Year,” so that “the old year and its curses come to an end.” In the Jerusalem Talmud, as well, these passages are referred to as “the curses in Leviticus and the curses in Deuteronomy,” but in the Midrash, they are called admonishments (tokheha), not curses, as it says there: “for they are not curses, rather they are admonishments.”
Due to its content, reading the Tokheha would cast fear upon the congregation, especially upon the person called up to the Torah for this passage. However, in several Hassidic courts, the admonishments were viewed as curses that embedded in the great blessings. This notion was apparently derived from the Zohar, which held that all admonishments are actually blessings, even if on the surface they appear to be curses.
Elijah appeared and said: Arise, Rabbi Simeon, awaken from your slumber. How fortunate you are that the Holy One, blessed be He, is mindful of your honor. All the promises and consolation of Israel are written in these curses. Consider, when a king loves his son, although he might curse him and beat him nevertheless he loves him from the bottom of his heart. Thus, even though the Holy One, blessed be He, uttered curses, His words were said lovingly. Outwardly they appear as curses, but they are great beneficence since these curses were said lovingly.
Based on this passage, the Admor Rabbi Samuel of Sokhatshov wrote:
Regarding the blessings and curses in our books, it follows from the holy Zohar and the New Zohar that underneath they are all blessings; indeed there are more blessings hidden in curses than blessings outwardly revealed… As with the creation of the world, which outwardly is a material world but contains an inner essence, it appears, … the inner essence of the world is entirely good, and only in the outward manifestations of the worlds is real bad, … It is well-known that everything that is secret and concealed has superior quality, therefore the blessings that are enveloped in the garb of curses are even more elevated… This explains why Ezra instituted that the blessings and curses be read on the Sabbaths preceding the Feast of Weeks and the New Year so that the old year and its curses come to an end… For it is well-known that reading the passage rouses the matter, and the curses as well are roused; and on the Sabbath, Israel absorbs the inner essence that the admonishments contain, which are instructive blessings, and the outer parts, which are curses, become annulled, and the old year and its curses come to an end… In this way, Israel prepares itself for the festival.
Thus we see that the great leaders of Hassidism transformed the curse into a blessing. It is told of Rabbi Nahum of Tchernobil, a sickly man afflicted with all sorts of ailments, in his youth spent the Sabbath on which the Admonishment was read with the Ba’al Shem Tov. When he was specially selected to come up to the Torah for the passage containing the Admonishment, at first he became somewhat faint. But then, as the Ba’al Shem Tov began reading from the Torah scroll, Rabbi Nahum felt all his pains gradually dissipating, limb by limb, and by the time the reading was through, his body had become entirely healed.
Also, when the Maggid of Kozienice heard the Admonishment read in the Beit Midrash and the words of Scripture reached his ears, “Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off” (Deut. 28:26), he let out a loud cry. Afterward, at the dinner table, he said:
Prayers that are not said in fear and trembling are called carcasses. But He who hears all prayers has mercy on His creatures. He instills in the heart a lofty inspiration, so for once one can pray with sincere devotion, and then one’s prayer becomes mighty and swallows up all the weak prayers and flies like a bird to the gates of Heaven.
This view that the curses contain great hidden blessings led to competition in certain places over the purchase of this aliyah to the Torah. Rabbi Ovadiah Hadaya once reported:
I heard there are certain places where they compete one with another for the purchase of this aliyah, and the one who wins makes a great feast for the entire congregation at the synagogue. There are other places where a certain person might traditionally have the claim to this aliyah and no one else may take it from him. It is clear that whoever considers them blessings has the reward of all the hidden blessings in them being fulfilled for him. And conversely, whoever (Heaven forbid) considers them curses, brings on himself these curses just as one might tempt fate, and in this regard, it is said: what business have you prying into the secrets of the Merciful One? Pleasantness will come to those who hear them, and they will be blessed with good.
This notion also finds expression in the literature describing by-gone days in Jerusalem:
Not everyone was afraid to be called up to the Torah for these verses of curses. It is told of the merchant Hizkiah Tajir that his success in business was actually due to his having been called up to the Torah for this aliyah. In order to dissuade the masses from believing that being called up to the Torah for this aliyah brings misfortune, the Rishon le-Zion Rabbi Jacob Meir himself used to take the aliyah to the Torah for this passage of the week’s reading.
A Lot to Process
Little Rivkah Shulman was in Junior Kindergarten at Eitz Chaim preschool. Her favorite time of the day was when the Morah taught parsha. Morah Dinah was telling the story of Lot and Sodom. “There was a man named Lot,” Morah Dinah explained, “who was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city but his wife looked back and was turned to salt.”
Concerned, Rivkah asked, “What happened to the flea?”