Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Does the Curse Overpower the Blessing?
The disparity between the relatively meager description of the blessings and the richer description of the curses beckons us to take a deeper look, which may allow us to arrive at a good explanation for the substantial difference between the blessing and the curse.
Rabbi Netanel Lederberg is the Rosh Yeshiva of OTS Metivta in Carmiel
Parshat Bechukotai describes a bi-polar covenant, with a curse at one pole, and a blessing at the other. The covenant is concluded “through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people” (Leviticus 26:46). An initial covenant that is also cited in the descriptions of a subsequent second covenant appearing in Parashat Ki Tavo, in the Book of Deuteronomy. The passage concludes as follows: “These are the terms of the covenant which Hashem commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 28:69). Eventually the second covenant would come into being at Mt. Eval and Mt. Gerizim, opposite the grave of Joseph, whose sale into servitude in Egypt began the first diaspora in Egypt. This may have been a way station for the entire nation upon entering the Land of Israel. The first covenant described in this week’s Parasha, which may have been hinted at in the Brit Ha’aganot (the “Covenant of the Bowls”: “Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people…” (Exodus 23:7). This was the covenant at Mt. Horeb, in the Sinai desert, which followed the giving of the Torah. As such, these two biblical passages describe a covenant containing descriptions of both a blessing and a curse. The first is from Parshat Bechukotai, at the conclusion of the books of Exodus and Leviticus, and the second appears in Parshat Ki Tavo, in the book of Deuteronomy.
From the Israelites’ vantage point, the covenant concluded at Mt. Sinai is the covenant concluded just before they entered the Land of Israel. The next stage, after the covenant had been concluded, should have been their entry into the Land of Israel, were it not for the Israelites future sinfulness the summer after the Torah is received, which climaxed with the Sin of the Spies (which is already a central narrative in the Book of Numbers). This is the covenant with and through which they should have entered the land. Perhaps this is where the Torah should have ended – with the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, the Torah that the Jewish people carried as they crossed directly into the Land of Israel.
What stands out in the descriptions of the initial covenant between Hashem and the Israelites? We’d feel discomfort when we review the verses of the covenant for the first time, because of the imbalance between the “blessing verses” and the “curse verses”. About ten verses discuss the blessing that will come into being “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments” – these blessings include rainfall, harvest, abundance, security, victory over enemies and the presence of the Eternal. Later, “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments,” we read 28 verses of curses, taking us from Verse 14 to Verse 42. They include tuberculosis, fever, the loss of the harvest, famine and plague, exodus, desolation, and much more. Is the curse more powerful than the blessing? How can we account for the imbalance between the blessing and the “curse verses”? Though the rest of the chapter deals with Hashem remembering the Israelites and a future ingathering of the exiles, to avoid violating the covenant in which Hashem promised to “not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them,” we are still left wondering why the descriptions of the blessings are so lacking compared to the rich descriptions of the curses. By reviewing these verses, we’ll notice a major difference between the blessing and the curse. The “blessing verses” begin with the proclamation of “If you follow My laws,” but after that, there is no progression in the fulfillment of the blessing. It is like a blessing of abundance that knows no bounds. It is an overflowing and ubiquitous abundance, like a gushing stream filling valley after valley. The blessings of goodness are wide-hearted and are given in good spirit. They come all at once, they are limitless, and there are no strings attached. “If you follow My laws” the entire blessing will envelop everyone, all at once.
The “curse verses” describe something entirely different. Numerically, there are more of them, so the initial impression is disproportionate and is far from the truth. Not because of how many curses there are, but rather, because of the many preconditions attached to each curse, which expresses the notion that there are different levels of sinfulness. At the beginning, “… if you do not follow My laws”, you’ll get tuberculosis and fever, but that’s where it ends. However, another precondition appears in the verse: “And if, for all that, you do not obey Me,” if you continue down this path, you’ll be beset by more hardships and tragedies, and you won’t have a harvest to sow. Once more, there’s a pause, and then, only if the situation gets worse, “And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.” The wild beasts will come. Then, the text pauses once more, and in the following verse, we read that “And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me,” the plague and famine will become even more severe. Once more, “But if, despite this, you disobey Me,” the decrees will grow worse. When we finish counting the verses describing the curses themselves, and not the actions that brought about the curses (variations of “if you do not listen to Me”), we arrive at 10 or 11 verses – exactly the same number of “blessing verses”! This means that after each warning in the form of “… if you do not listen…”, there are only 2 or 3 verses containing curses. However, we recall that in the case of the blessings, after “if you follow My laws”, we read ten verses in a row, abounding in blessings!
In other words, if we delve into these verses, we’ll realize that the first impression we get is illusory, and in effect, there are far more blessings than there are curses. This opposition teaches us something crucial about the life of blessing, as opposed to the life of curse: blessings are abundant, they are given to us and they permeate everything, infusing the world with their goodness. The blessings aren’t gradual, involving a process of constant review and assessment. They simply come into being, in their full splendor: ” I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down endless blessings on you.” (Malachi 3:10). Curses, by nature, are partial. They are shrouded in hesitation and ignorance of what will happen in the future. They involve assessments and reassessments, and dilemmas at every turn. They are constrictive rather than broad. In that sense, the gap between the world of blessings and the world of curses isn’t just about their content, that is, whether there is abundant rainfall or drought. It’s also about the rhythm at which these things are happening. Will there be plentitude showered upon us endlessly, or will we constantly be stopping? Will there be additional preconditions and assessments to ascertain what needs to be done? Will we be unable to truly be present and experience wholeness and the presence of the Divine?