D’var Torah: Rabbi Jethro Berkman (Behar/Bechukotai)

 

This week we read the double portion Behar/Bechukotai, the last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus.  The bulk of the portion Bechukotai is comprised of a list of blessings that the Israelites will receive if they follow God’s commandments in the land of Israel (rain, bountiful crops, peace, security etc.) and a list of curses they will receive if they fail to do so (drought, famine, pestilence, war, and ultimately exile).

A cursory glance at these two lists quickly reveals the disheartening news that the list of curses is far longer, more specific and more colorfully narrated than the rather modest list of blessings.  Such is the discrepancy between the two lists that the portion is commonly referred to as the “Tochecha” – the Rebuke.

In her brilliant “New Studies in Leviticus,” the 20th century Israeli Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes that this notion that the curses far outweigh the blessings has sometimes been questioned. A midrash notes that first word of the blessings starts with an aleph (which opens the Hebrew alphabet), while the last word of the blessings ends with a tav (which closes the Hebrew alphabet), suggesting that the blessings include all good things “from A to Z.”  The curses, on the other hand, begin with a vav (6th letter) and end with a heh (5th letter), suggesting that just as there isn’t much between heh and vav, so too there isn’t much to these curses.

The 12th century Spanish Torah commentator Ibn Ezra also argues that the blessings are in fact greater than the curses, noting that the blessings are stated in generalities (leaving the glorious details to the reader’s imagination), while the curses include all of the concrete detail.  Had the details of the blessings been provided, the argument seems to be, they would far outstrip the curses.

While Ibn Ezra’s argument, and the midrashists’ tricks with letters might seem a bit superficial to us now, they could be viewed as pointing toward a profound psychological truth.  How many of us spend more time focusing on the “curses” in our lives than on the blessings?  How many of us analyze and agonize over every detail of our mistakes and our shortcomings, while allowing our successes and our strengths to hover in the background, as vague generalities?

I’m reminded of an article I read last year about a study indicating that people who take a few minutes each morning to write down five things for which they are grateful, grow increasingly happy as they continue the exercise.  Perhaps our natural tendency is to leave our blessings unexamined—to assume that our blessings list is shorter than our curses list.  And perhaps our task (as Ibn Ezra’s reading might imply), at least now and then, is to linger on our blessings, to recount them to ourselves in all their beautifully.

Rabbi Jethro Berkman is the Dean of Jewish Education at Gann Academy

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