“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Devarim 11: 26).
About 20 years ago I left New York City and arrived in Jerusalem for the year to further my Jewish studies and to explore more of Israel. I was not alone; my college sweetheart was with me, and not long after we arrived, we got engaged. With joy and anticipation I imagined all the details of our future life together back in the US after our year in Israel together.
But it was not to be. A week later we were unengaged, and a few weeks later she was on a plane back to the US. I was more than heartbroken; I had lost the picture of where my life was going and who I was. I felt like a vessel which had been smashed into 1,000 pieces. So my only recourse was to put myself back together one piece at a time, to re-envision myself and to find a new life path.
Looking back 20 years later, I cannot imagine my life otherwise. I decided to stay in yeshiva and in Israel beyond the first year and continue my Jewish learning to deepen my connection with the Jewish Homeland. Three years later I met my amazing wife, who made aliyah two days after our wedding, and we’ve built our home on shared values and idealistic dreams. Our five children, all born in Jerusalem, are strong and stubborn and inspiring.
I would never trade one detail of the life that I live today for the life that I pictured 20 years ago. But in that dark moment so long ago when my engagement fell apart, the blessing that would come to fruition from the curse of the breakup was hidden from my eyes.
This week’s parsha opens with a short, simple statement that holds tremendous depth: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Devarim 11: 26).
This statement serves as an outline to the ceremony of blessings and curses which is to take place at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval. Though we will receive more detailed instructions about this ceremony in Parshat Ki Tavo in another three weeks, it is mentioned here in brief as a preface to a long list of mitzvot which are related to living in the Promised Land. The implications are laid out clearly: if you follow the laws, you will receive innumerable blessings. But if you violate the laws, there will be serious consequences.
In other words, Moshe is teaching them about personal and national responsibility. Though this is not a new concept, Moshe insists on clarifying it for them as they stand ready to enter the land, entreating them that their destiny is not in the hands of God, but in their own hands. They alone are responsible for their future.
Rambam was so moved by this message that he dedicated nearly an entire chapter from the Laws of Repentance in his Mishneh Torah to clarifying the idea embedded here. In Chapter 5 he explains in great detail the centrality of free will as a pillar of the Torah, and does not hold back criticism from those who claim that fate or destiny is to blame for the outcome of their lives.
“There is none to either force things upon him or to decree things against him; either to pull him one way or draw him another way, but he alone, of his own free will, with the consent of his mind, bends to any path he may desire to follow” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 5:2).
We must not be afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror, clearly call out our mistakes, and take responsibility for them. The entirety of the Torah stands on this concept.
But where does this leave God in the equation? If I am completely responsible for my actions, then where was God when I went astray? Do we not also believe in the Divine Will, that nothing happens without God’s consent?
To put it another way, if my success or failure is based on my own behavior, then God seems to take a backseat. True, I may be living my entire life according to the Torah. But the outcome is all on me, and God seems to be watching from afar, if at all. Ultimate responsibility can lead to a feeling of ultimate detachment from the Divine.
So how can we experience a sense of Divine closeness without losing out on the moral imperative of responsibility? The great Chassidic rebbe Rabbi Moredechai Yosef Leiner, known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, offers an answer from the very passage we have mentioned. The blessing and the curse, he teaches, both emanate from the same source. This might be obvious, but it is no less elusive to hold than the concept of personal responsibility. The good that we experience emanates not from our own hands, but from the Divine. Gratitude to the Source of this good is an essential spiritual tenant.
And what about the experience of loss and affliction? This too emanates from the Divine. But for the Ishbitzer, these experiences are not Divine punishment; they are what he calls unrefined good. The unrefined good is experienced as evil, but our spiritual work is to take this “bad” and make good from it. Like a farmer who removes the chaff from the wheat, we all must take the challenges that life offers us and find the seed within that can bring forth fruit.
Bringing these two ideas together offers a powerful spiritual path from our passage. We must take absolute responsibility for our actions, and strive to embody the mitzvot to the best of our ability. But the call to responsibility should not lessen God’s presence in our life. Hashem is present in our lives equally in the blessings and in the unrefined blessings, and we can acknowledge their source, and feel God’s intimate involvement in our lives through them. Though this may take a long time, or even a lifetime, we can feel God walking with us as we work to turn the unrefined good into true good.
What do you think? What are some practical ways to see the challenges in our lives as unrefined good as opposed to Divine punishment?
Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.