Parshat Bechukotai: The Blessing and the Curse

The Blessing and the Curse

Rabbi Netanel Lederberg is Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yeshivat Metivta in Carmiel

The Book of Vayikra ends with the portion of Bechukotai, which describes the covenant between God “and between the Children of Israel in Mount Sinai at the hand of Moshe” (Vayikra 26, 46).  This covenant is contingent upon a mutual commitment: if the covenant is observed and the words abided by, the result is great abundance and blessing from heaven.  The verses also offer a description of what will happen if there is a breach of covenant. 

A similar covenant is mentioned at the end of the Book of Devarim, in the portion of Ki-Tavo, which takes place in the 40th year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert.  For the second time, the blessings and the curses are recounted, and the description culminates as follows: “These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moshe to make with the Children of Israel in the land of Moav, beside the covenant which He made with them in Chorev” (Devarim, 28, 69). 

The second covenant, which is mentioned in the 40th year of their wanderings, was due to come into effect at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, both facing the place of burial of Yosef son of Yaakov, whose sale brought about the initial descent to Egypt and the exile which ensued.  The fact that this particular spot was chosen for the covenant due to take place in the Land of Israel is of great significance, and paves the road for the People of Israel once they enter the Land. 

The first covenant at Horeb [Sinai], mentioned in our portion, took place in the second year following the Exodus from Egypt.  It might even have occurred sometime in the first year, right after the giving of the Torah at Sinai (despite the fact that it is only mentioned now in the Book of Vayikra), because there is also mention of a covenant in the portion of Mishpatim: “And he took the book of the covenant and read it in the ears of the people” (Shemot 24, 7).  It follows then that a covenant had been entered at Sinai, right after the giving of the Torah. 

The fact that Torah talks of a covenant at the end of the Book of Vayikra – and not only at the end of the Book of Devarim – suggests that at the point in time in which our portion takes place, the People of Israel were sure they would be entering the Promised Land at any moment.  After the giving of the Torah at Sinai, it was naturally expected that the next step would be entering the Promised Land, working its soil and making it prosper.  In keeping with this, the words of the blessings and the curses are very understandable, as they relate to the crops of the land, the agricultural produce and to the livestock.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the sins of the Israelites in the summer months of the second year following the Exodus – the sin of the spies, inter alia – they would have entered the Land immediately following the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the building of the Mishkan, which was intended to serve as a place of worship in the Land of Israel.  This was supposed to be the natural sequence of events by virtue of the covenant in the portion of Bechukotai.  In such case, the Torah could have come to a close in our portion, and the Israelites could have entered the Land of Israel directly.  This might explain why the Book of Vayikra ends with a covenant: from this moment on, it is possible to advance and take the steps necessary for realizing the big dream and fulfilling the calling of the People of Israel: settling the Land of Israel. 

From a first reading of our portion, we might find it strange that there is such a big discrepancy between the verses that speak of the blessings, and those describing the curses. 

Approximately ten verses focus on the blessings that will come upon the People of Israel “if you follow My statutes and keep My commandments”.  These include timely rains, good produce, abundance, security, victory over the enemies and the presence of God in the land.  All these promises relate to the settling of the land and to the blessing of the soil.  Following this sequence of blessings, we read the verse: “If you hearken not unto me, and do not fulfill all these commandments.” From verse 14 through verse 42 there are 28 verses relating numerous curses such as consumption, fever, loss of crops, famine, pestilence, exile and many more.

Does this lack of proportion mean that the curse is stronger than the blessing?  How can we explain this disproportionality? True, later on in the chapter the verses tell us that God will remember His people, and the People of Israel shall return from exile. The reason given for this is that “I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly or break My covenant with them.”  Still and all, there is a huge disparity between the dull descriptions of the blessings and the very picturesque descriptions of the curses.

A closer examination of the verses, though, reveals another inherent difference between the verses relating the blessings, and those recounting the curses. This inherent difference might serve to answer the question posed earlier.  The verses relating the blessings open with the words – “If you shall follow my statutes” – and are then followed by a plethora of blessings, an unrestrained torrent of abundance.  Blessing pours down in great bounty; it springs forth in a great flow of plenty.  The blessing cascades as water does, filling every crack and crevice.  It showers down unconditionally.  With no terms.  “If you shall follow my statutes”, the blessing will pour down in its entirety, on everyone. 

On the other hand, the verses which talk of the curses describe something else entirely.  The first impression may be one of disproportion because there are so many of these verses.  However, it is not because there is actually an abundance of curses; rather, the pauses between the different inflictions, and the conditions that have to exist before the next set of curses can come about – all of these create an overwhelming impression.  At first, “if you do not follow My statutes”, you will be inflicted with consumption and fever, but no more.  The curse ends here. 

But then another term is specified – “but if you hearken not unto Me” – if you persevere in your ways, then more trials and tribulations shall befall you.  The produce of the land will fail.  Another pause here.  Only in such case that the situation gets worse – “and if you walk contrary unto Me, and hearken not unto Me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins” – it is then that the beasts of the field shall come upon you.  Another pause.  The next verse goes on to say “and if in spite of these things you will not be corrected unto Me, but will walk contrary unto Me” – then there will be graver punishments still: pestilence and famine.  But it does not end here either.  The Torah goes on to say – “and if, despite all this, you will hearken not, unto me”, there will come upon you, greater inflictions still. 

Ultimately, the verses depicting the curses themselves, and not what caused them (i.e., the words “and if you hearken not unto me”) amount to ten or eleven verses – the exact same number of verses that refer to blessings!  After each warning of “if you hearken not unto me”, there are only 2-3 verses that actually describe the inflictions, whereas after the opening – “if you follow my statutes” – there are no less than ten verses of blessing!

The seemingly lengthy sequence of verses depicting the curses does not, in fact, denote an abundance of curses; rather, it wishes to convey the idea that curses come about in stages, gradually.  In contrast, blessings are showered upon us in great quantities.  When blessing comes down to the world, it is not a gradual process; it is not subtle; it is not hesitant.  No!  It is an outpouring of goodness; glorious in its downpour. “And I shall pour you out a blessing, that there shall be more than sufficiency” (Malachi, 3, 10).  The curse, by its very definition, is something incomplete, a hesitation, a feeling of uncertainty regarding the future.  It involves constant inspection; unceasing speculation.  Curses are confining, restricting; the movement is inward and does not expand outwards.  The discrepancy between the blessing and the curse is not only in the outcome – whether there will be rain or drought – but is also expressed in the manner in which things come about – whether they come in an outpouring of abundance, unhindered, or whether there is interruption, constant examination, uncertainty and the inability to be fully present in the here and now, and to feel completely whole.

Let us revert for a moment to the story of those who took part in the actual Exodus from Egypt, the generation that merited a great bounty of blessings because they chose to follow God into the great uninhabited vastness of the desert.  An entire nation of slaves, who, only moments before, had emerged from slavery into freedom, saw great miracles; so much so, that even the lowliest handmaid witnessed greater Divinity than did the prophet Yechezkel.  The people that left Egypt saw the Ten Plagues of Egypt; the wonderous splitting of the Red Sea; they received manna and quails from heaven; stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah; erected the Mishkan and saw the glory of God dwell within; they witnessed great light and plentitude, were fortunate to have Moshe as their leader, and merited constant Divine revelation.  The generation of the Exodus lived in a state of blessing and abundance, as is described in the verses depicting the unceasing blessing.  For them, a curse was not only a matter of content; rather, a curse was, first and foremost, considered to be anything that evolved gradually, unlike the abundance they were used to.  In fact, this state in which things transpire slowly, enabling one to take small steps, was actually intended to give them the opportunity to rectify and reexamine their ways. 

In other words, this was a reality in which long-term processes unfolded slowly, taking to task future generations as well, intended also for those who will eventually enter the Land of Israel.  Interestingly, in the Book of Devarim, in the portion of Ki-Tavo, the discrepancy between the unhindered and bountiful blessing and the gradual manifestation of the curse, is less extreme.  In Devarim the blessings and the curses take on a different form and shape, one more suited to the generation about to enter the Land and work its soil.  This generation will have no choice but to take part in longer processes involving the conquering of the Land, settling it, making the name of God known to all, and engaging in Tikkun Olam. 

It follows then that the blessing which initially poured down unhindered, with no limitations at a rapid pace, unlike the curses that were gradual and took place in stages – making it possible to repent and put them to a stop – were ultimately replaced by blessings and curses of equal tempo. 

Still and all, may we not only merit a myriad of blessings, but also reexperience the special tempo at which blessing is manifest.  And may the Divine light shine upon us always

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