“The Blessing and the Curse”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, Moses appeals to the Jewish people to faithfully abide by G-d’s commandments, adjuring them to recognize that living a life committed to G-d is the ultimate source of blessing.

The parasha opens with a well-known verse from Deuteronomy 11:26: “R’ay ah’noh’chee no’tayn lif’nay’chem hah’yom, b’racha ook’lah’lah,” Behold, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. Moses informs the Jewish people, that if they adhere to G-d’s commandments, they will be blessed, but if they fail to heed G-d’s commandments and stray from that path to follow the gods of others, they will be cursed.

The Bible commentators immediately note that there is a grammatical disparity between the opening word, “r’ay,” see, which is in the singular, and the word, “lif’nay’chem,” before you, which is plural. The Gaon of Vilna (Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797, exceptional Talmudist, Halachist, Kabbalist, and the foremost leader of non-Hasidic world Jewry of the past few centuries) derives from the change in number (singular to plural) that no one should abandon a spiritual journey because they feel alone, bereft of fellow travelers. Those who are on a sincere spiritual journey must not be afraid of the unknown. After all, G-d is always with them to help them along, and to provide support. Furthermore, a truly committed person will eventually attract followers and even disciples.

The change from singular to plural is seen by other commentators as a way of letting the world know that, to Moses, every individual was precious, and that if his appeal to the multitudes affected even one single person, Moses would be happy with that accomplishment. The depths of Moses’ concern for each individual serves as a powerful lesson for educators and pedagogues and others, who hope to influence large numbers of students and followers, not to neglect the individual students and to show concern for their unique needs.

As previously stated, Moses poignantly sets out for the Jewish people a choice of blessing and curse. The people clearly know the choices and the paths that lay before them.

Unfortunately, the painful reality is that today, for many Jews, there really is no choice. They have no idea of the blessings of Jewish life. Tragically, many young Jews today, perhaps the majority, receive no Jewish education at all, have no Bar or Bat Mitzvah, never see Shabbat candles or hear Sabbath kiddush, and were never blessed by their parents on Friday night.

A choice can only be made when there are choices present. Unfortunately, for most Jews today, there is only a single path–-one that is bereft of any Jewish content. Even more tragic, because of their abysmal ignorance, most young Jews today are not even interested in finding out what they may be missing.

There is, however, another way of looking at this series of verses. Perhaps Moses is not setting out a choice for the people. Moses may be simply stating that life always consists of blessings as well as curses. Following G-d’s directives will lead to blessing, and straying from them will subject the people to unhappiness.

Although most of us intuitively know that life has both bitter and sweet aspects, we fail to appreciate that it is often impossible to achieve the sweet without first experiencing the bitter. The joy of childbirth is fraught with pain. Those who reap in happiness often plant with tears. Our sages in the Ethics of the Fathers (5:26) say, “L’foom tza’ah’rah ahg’rah,” the greater the struggle, the greater the reward.

As we approach the month of Elul, it is important that we recognize that set out before us is a choice of good or evil. The knowledge that there is rarely good without a struggle must become an intuitive part of our being and living.

However, no matter what the future holds for us, it is good to know that G-d, our faithful Companion, is always with us at our side.

May you be blessed.