Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know. [Deuteronomy. 11:26-28]
If you had a choice between a Lexus and a Morris Minor, would you hesitate? The all-electric Lexus marks the paragon of luxury and speed. The Morris Minor, produced from 1948 to 1971, was a working man’s car that took more than 16 seconds to reach 50 miles per hour.
So, when Moses gives the Israelites the option of a blessing or a curse, where’s the mystery?
Ahh, but it’s not that simple. There’s the choice of starting with a blessing that ends with a curse: A 12-lane highway that after a while drops to a narrow one-lane blacktop. The 12-laner is great for your Lexus. But when you get to the one lane, nothing seems to work.
Then, there is the one-lane start. It’s slow, congested and requires full concentration. But after an hour or so, the road widens to an interstate without a speed limit. Now, you’re flying.
Some of us are given that choice. We can start out on easy street, cut all corners, dive into a world of pleasure and hope there is another side. Whether through alcohol or drugs, today is no more than a blur. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. There is no right or wrong. There’s only me.
The problem with that approach, says Chaim Ibn Attar, or the Or Hachayim, is that the experience is oh so short. Some might be lucky and live the dream for a lifetime. But then there’s the next world that’s a lot longer than this one. And, yes, you pay at the door.
Then, there’s the simple man with a simple life. He works hard, finds a girl, settles down and builds a family. He prays to G-d for basic needs. Sure, he suffers the insults of those in the fast lane. He’s put down as a working stiff, a nine-to-fiver, blue collar. His friend works in City Hall and earns three times as much for a third of the hours.
But after a while the simple man passes the one in the fast lane. The former has built a family that loves and nourishes. They are interested in each other and enjoy each other’s company. The one in the fast lane was too busy with himself to build. He might have amassed a fortune, but everybody around him is on the payroll.
The transformation of blessing to curse or vice versa depends on our relationship with G-d. If we cling to Him and follow His ways, whatever happens in our lives will end up for the better. The more we give, the more we’ll get back.
Of course, the opposite is also true. We might become rich, hoard our treasure, give nothing and hope the money lasts until our dying day. And yet, the Or Hachayim warns, we might hear a knock on the door one day. It could be the IRS. It could be a jealous neighbor with a son in the police. Then, everything we’ve worked for is at risk.
Long before Michael Jackson there was Frankie Lymon. At 13, Lymon, who came from the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights, sang the hit single “Why Do Falls for in Love?” Another chart-topper was “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.”
Lymon was now famous, his pockets full of money. Asked what he did it with, he replied, “I buy candy.” Nobody told him to save his money. A year later, his voice dropped and his career took a nosedive. He replaced candy with hard drugs, and at age 25 he was found dead in his grandmother’s bathroom in Harlem from a heroin overdose.
Actually, it’s not merely curse versus blessing — at least not for the Jewish people. G-d gave them a tool that would sustain and energize them even during the worst of times. That is the Torah. When a Jew learns Torah because he is commanded by G-d, then his simple and difficult life becomes joyous. He is infused with divine wisdom rather than something useful on a television quiz show. The fatigue of his long day dissipates, and he is refreshed. The prophet Isaiah puts it this way, “Listen and your soul become alive.”
Then comes the Sabbath. Here is where the blessing is greatest. Your song is meant for G-d. Your rest is exactly what the One Above prescribes. At first glance, it seems all physical. But put this in the context of the Seventh Day and nothing could be sweeter spiritually.
Notice, how the blessing depends on hearing rather than doing. When you hear G-d’s command the deed is not long in coming. That is the beauty of the Torah — listening, understanding and believing. The rest is easy.
And then there is the corollary. That is the man who has no time for G-d’s word. His reasons are many: He is too busy making money, drafting policy, building a career or just hanging around the gym. And when he takes a break, he wants some pleasure. Hell, he’s earned it.
That kind of person, says the Or Hachayim, doesn’t merely encounter a curse. He actually curses himself. He has taken G-d’s gift of life and ruined it. He’s taken a 24-carat diamond and uses it for a paperweight. Is that stupid or what?
And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite who is within your cities, for he has no portion or inheritance with you. [Deuteronomy. 12:12]