Do you remember the scene in the movie, Moonstruck, from 1987, when Loretta Castorini (Cher) puts her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) on a flight to Italy to go see his dying mother, and as she’s watching the flight take off, a woman standing next to her, with white hair and covered entirely in black, says the following:
Woman: You have someone on that plane?
Loretta: Yeah, my fiancé.
Woman: [angry] I put a curse on that plane. My sister is on that plane. I put a curse on that plane that it’s gonna explode, burn on fire and fall into the sea. Fifty years ago, she stole a man from me. S’aprese il mio uomo! Today she tells me that she never loved him, that she took him to be strong on me. Now she’s going back to Sicily. Ritorna in Sicilia! I cursed her that the green Atlantic water should swallow her up!
Loretta: I don’t believe in curses.
Woman: [shrugging] Eh, neither do I.
Well, I must concede that I don’t really believe in curses, either. At least, not that kind of curse.
But actually, there is a kind of curse in which I do believe. And a kind of blessing, too.
One of the features of Parashat Ki Tavo is the litany of blessings and curses: good things that, the Torah says, we will receive if we follow the mitzvot, the traditional opportunities for holiness that the Torah prescribes, and the dire, grisly things that will happen if we fail to observe the mitzvot.
Here is the challenge that we all have as modern Jews: none of us actually believe that. Yes, there may be a few pious ones among us that truly believe that fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah (Jewish law) as it has come down to us will appease God’s anger. But I am fairly certain that if I were to push most of us on whether or not we take this passage of blessings and curses literally, it would not be too long before we concede that the world does not really work that way.
And there is nothing wrong with that! As some of you have surely heard me say before, the rabbis of the Talmudic period ask more or less the same question in Massekhet Berakhot (7a), which can be paraphrased as, why does the scoundrel sometimes thrive and prosper and the meticulously pious person sometimes die young of cancer? (A similar question is asked in Pirqei Avot 4:19 by Rabbi Yanai.)
One possible response to this conundrum is that the Torah is speaking not about individuals, but to us as a people. That is, if the majority of people are flouting the mitzvot, then bad things will happen to the Jews. This is not necessarily a theology that I embrace, in particular because it leads to thinking along the lines of, the Jews of Europe brought the Shoah, the Holocaust, upon themselves due to their sins. (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef actually said this.) Nonetheless, I think that there is something here we can latch onto that will be helpful.
So I am going to make the case for why you should step out of your theological comfort zone to consider that blessings and curses are real. It’s just that they don’t quite happen the way the Torah suggests.
What are some of the blessings that we have, not necessarily as individuals, but as a society?
(Food / health care / shelter / great neighborhood, etc.)
What are some of the curses?
(Racism / sexism / anti-Semitism / sin’at hinnam / cancer / allergies / climate change / pollution, etc.)
I am going to propose that the way we should read this part of Ki Tavo in the current moment is not “I keep Shabbes therefore my family will thrive,” or “I make sure my mezuzah is kosher so my great uncle will not have a heart attack.” Rather, the way we should read this is, “I take responsibility for my neighbor, so my community will thrive.” Or, “I commit my time and my money to making sure that more people have enough to eat, so I can sleep well at night knowing that fewer people are hungry.”
In other words, we reap what we sow. Collectively. We all need to be in this for the common good.
Some of you know that we always study a little text between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon. We actually have these nice new Pirqei Avot books that a few of you helped to purchase, with commentaries by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. A few weeks back, we read the following (Avot 4:2):
בן עזאי אומר, הוי רץ למצוה קלה, וברח מן העבירה: שמצוה גוררת מצוה, ועבירה גוררת עבירה; ששכר מצוה מצוה, ושכר עבירה עבירה
Ben Azzai liked to say: Run to perform a trivial mitzvah / commandment as vigorously as you would to a consequential one, and flee from transgression, for one fulfilled mitzvah brings another in its wake, just as one transgression brings another in its wake. The reward for fulfilling a mitzvah is the desire to fulfill another mitzvah, whereas the reward for transgression is another transgression.
Very interesting, right? This ancient rabbinic take on the idea of mitzvot is that the reward for a mitzvah is not that Israel receives rain, or that you get a bunch of grandchildren, or a raise at work. Rather, the reward is that you get to perform another mitzvah.
Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, in her commentary, offers this very ethereal perspective:
Commandments and transgressions are… two guides to the spiritual and moral topography of life, enabling the learner to identify the openings through which one may profitably pass, on the one hand, and the walls that will constitute dead ends, on the other. Choose an opening, any opening at all, teaches Ben Azzai, and avoid the walls as best you can… Life consists of the dynamic alteration of pursuit and flight… This motion is necessitated by the fundamental human inability to know the full consequences of every action…
What she is saying is that mitzvot open doors, which lead to new passageways, which lead to more openings. When we fail to fulfill the mitzvot, we hit walls. What is nice about her take, I think, is that the mitzvot are thus a way that we open ourselves up, and connect to one another. When we throw up walls, we separate from one another; we stymie the building of community; we inhibit connections; we thwart progress as a people, a nation, a world.
So while you might think that putting on tefillin on a weekday morning, or not eating shrimp, or reciting the Shema before you go to bed might be deeply personal choices that only affect you, these actions ultimately reflect back on us in deep, interconnected ways. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: daily tefillah / prayer is meant to connect us to each other, those in the room and those beyond. When we fail to act on the holy opportunities of Jewish life, we hit a wall.
And the more walls we bump into, ladies and gentlemen, the harder it will be for us to solve the great challenges, or shall we say curses, of our time.
The more we connect, the greater our blessings. The more we separate, the greater the scourges of opioid addiction, climate change, poverty, homelessness, hunger, gun violence, sin’at hinnam / causeless hatred in all its pernicious forms.
The way we turn our curses into blessings is to work harder to recommit to our framework of qedushah, of holiness. When we perform mitzvot, and not just the tzedaqah kind, good things happen. When we don’t, well, you know what happens. We all have the potential to build a better reality. All we need to do is open another door.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/1/2018.)