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Blessings and Curses

This Week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Ki Tavo, contains an account of an incredible ceremony that was to take place once the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. The Torah says that the Twelve Tribes were to be split in half; six tribes were to stand on Mt. Gerezim, and the other six were to stand on Mt. Ebal. These are two mountains that are very near to each other in northern Israel but separated by a valley. The text says that Mt. Gerezim was the mountain of blessing and Mt. Ebal was the mountain of curse. The Levites positioned themselves in the Valley between the mountain and called out a series of curses to which the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali all responded in unison, “Amen.” Then the Levites turned the curses into blessings, and the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin responded in unison “Amen” to the blessings.

Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Photo: BibleAsk

The Talmud (Sota 37a) expanded on the ceremony and described it like this:

“They (the Levites) turned to face Mount Gerizim and opened with a blessing: ‘Blessed be the one who does not make a graven or molten image’ and the two groups standing on either mountain, answered: ‘Amen.’ Then they turned to face Mount Ebal and opened with the curse: ‘Cursed be the one who makes a graven or molten image’ and all the people standing on either mountain answered: ‘Amen.’”

What an awesome sight it must have been, and what a powerful experience for all the people to acknowledge together what brought them blessing and what would bring them curse. There was a clear recognition that if we did certain things, it was bad, and if we didn’t do those things, it would be good. Maybe it was just so much clearer to our ancestors: “Blessed is the one who honors his/her father and mother.” “Cursed be the one who does not honor his/her father or mother.” “Blessed is the one who does not remove his/her neighbor’s property marker.” “Cursed be the one who does remove his/her neighbor’s property marker.” “Blessed is the one who does not cause the blind to go astray.” “Cursed be the one who does cause the blind to go astray,” and so on. (Deuteronomy 27:15-18). It seems so very simple.

There are actually a lot more blessings and curses in the Torah text itself; these are just a few. However, it is interesting that these curse/blessing couplets can be divided into two distinct categories. There are those actions that are visible to others and those which are not. How one honors or dishonors their parents can be seen by other people. Not moving your neighbor’s property marker can be seen, etc.. But then there are other curses/blessings which cannot be seen by others. In the Parsha, those are mostly related to forbidden sexual activities, but in our own lives, we have similar scenarios. We are all confronted with situations that can be good for us or bad for us, and how we address each situation may be contingent on whether we are seen, or worse…whether we get caught.

In Judaism, there is a concept known as Yirat Shamayim – יראת שמים, the “fear” of Heaven. I never liked the concept of the fear of Heaven or the fear of God. I always thought it should be translated as “reverence for God.” However, when we recognize that the root of the word יראה is ראה or “to see,” we begin to recognize that it’s not fear of God as much as the fear of being seen doing something we should not be doing. Nobody would ever cheat on their taxes if they knew they were going to be caught. Nobody would ever steal if they knew they were going to be caught. Nobody would ever cheat on their spouse if they knew they were going to be caught. The nature of יראת שמים tells us that even though nobody is around to see what we may be doing, “God” sees all or… ultimately, nobody really gets away with anything. Or do they?

Would we tolerate on land, where we can see what happens, what we tolerate in the Sea, where we cannot?

We would never support slavery or purchase products produced by enslaved people on land. Yet, slavery is rampant on the high seas. If you knew the fish you were eating might have been caught by enslaved people on an industrial fishing trawler, would you continue to eat that fish?

We would never tolerate dumping a million gallons of radioactive waste on land, yet when it takes place at sea the world barely takes notice.

We would never tolerate the wholesale slaughter of an endangered species like a panda, elephant, or tiger on land, but we don’t even notice when it happens at sea.

We would not stand by if an ancient forest was to be cut down. We protect the Redwoods of California or Tane Mahuta in New Zealand, but when it happens almost every day at sea we barely notice.

When it comes to the Ocean, the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” holds true. But just because we don’t see it happening ourselves doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. A curse, whether we see it or not, is still a curse.

Unlike our ancestors, who could recognize the difference between blessing and curse, we have somehow allowed our vision to be cloudy. The world today is so divided. We are infested with mistrust and cynicism. We have allowed special interest groups and money to convince us that what is good is bad and what is bad is good. How have we lost sight of what should be so simple and clear?

Would that we could all stand together on the shore of the sea, the banks of the rivers, and the edge of the lakes and proclaim:

Blessed is the one who protects and restores God’s Creation.

Blessed is the one who feels the pain of those in bondage and strives to free them.

Blessed is the one who feels the pain of all living beings and strives to alleviate it.

Blessed is the one who sees and feels the true unity of all creation.

And all the people would respond: AMEN!


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