What’s the blessing, what’s the curse

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

See, I have set before you this day, a blessing and a curse.  

— Deuteronomy 11:26.

Parashat Re’eh opens with part of the farewell speech of Moses, here perched at the edge of the Promised Land, knowing that he is not destined to take us into the land. 

He is readying his little ones to fly on their own, taking the last opportunity to remind us of all that we will need to know in the next stage of our existence. He often repeats teachings he has delivered before. He is like a mother sending her children off for their first day of independence — to school, to camp, to life. We call him Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. Sometimes I think we should call him Moshe Imeinu, Moses our Mother.

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Let’s look at this opening phrase of Parashat Re’eh, in which Moshe our mother is speaking to his children. It begins with “see.”  See: I set before you this day a blessing and a curse, the blessing if you listen to the mitzvot of your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not listen but turn aside out of the way that I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known.

It begins with “see,” and is followed by “listen.” Two different senses, seeing and hearing. 

Seeing is an integrating activity. What you see is fixed in a moment; sight is a perception of depth and relationship, but not one of time and articulation. 

Hearing is a perception unfolding through time. This sentence I am speaking is not given over until I … have  … spoken  … each … word … of … it. 

Two different ways of perceiving. 

See, grasp it in its intuitive momentariness. See it, and see it all, or as much as is known to you through this kind of understanding. This is the intuition, the momentary apprehension of a truth, sometimes before there may be words attached to it. Know the reality of your choice, a blessing or a curse, in this way.

Then know it by hearing, as it unfolds in time, as it attaches itself to words and you speak of it and it is spoken to you. You have a choice, a blessing or a curse, listen and know that this is true. Know this as it unfolds through your story, the reality of your choices, your reality, the daily choices of your life.  

Something else. “See” is singular. There is a shift with “before you” to the plural, and then all the verbs switch to plural. “Hear” is plural.  We feel in the language itself the tension between the personal and the communal, the single choice and all choices, the individual decision and the way of the community, the world. Every individual choice is individual but it also has a communal, a nonlocal  significance. 

The Talmud has a clever way of making this point. It is written, “A person should consider oneself as half righteous and half guilty and likewise see the world as if it too were half righteous and half guilty. Your one single deed would tip the balance for yourself and the entire world.” (Kiddushin 40b).

Feel the point of this beautiful koan. Every action of the individual is significant enough that it shifts the balance –  the balance inside and the balance of the world. Each deed is that significant.  

We are all tied up with one another in such a way that each act is crucial to the world, in the sense that you choose blessing, you teach blessing. Your life teaches blessing. You choose curse, you teach curse. The koan is designed not to inhibit you or freeze you in your tracks; you cannot decide because the responsibility is too great, but is designed to awaken awareness to the significance of every action, encouraging care and intentional action. 

One last thing. The text doesn’t say specifically what the blessing is, what the curse is. You don’t know? You know. You know which of your choices is a blessing and which are curses. And those actions that you really don’t know, this is as good a standard as you have. Ask yourself: Is this a blessing or is this a curse? We know.