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TO CURSE OR NOT TO CURSE

by Rabbi Yossi Lew    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In two different places the Torah "lets us have it" to the fullest extent - in this week's portion (Leviticus 26:14-46), and again towards the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

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In two different places the Torah "lets us have it" to the fullest extent - in this week's portion (Leviticus 26:14-46), and again towards the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). In both places, we are left with no doubt as to what will happen should the Jewish people abandon the Torah and its Divine Originator. In fact, the words and curses included in the portions are so harsh that in many synagogues they are read in an undertone. In the Torah, the Jewish people are referred to as the children of Hashem (see Deuteronomy 14:1). In turn, the Jewish people very often refer to Hashem as "Our Father". It is hard to imagine any father cursing any child of his with such horrible savageness. Shouldn't we expect some mercy here? In our prayers we ask Hashem to have mercy on us, as a father has mercy on a son. As unpropitious and iniquitous a child may be, any father couldn't possibly wish on his son any part of what the Torah seems to be saying in these aforementioned portions. We must, therefore, say that this portion is not necessarily what it seems to be on the surface.

The following story could help shed light on this matter. The Talmud (Tractate Moed Katan 9a) relates that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai - the Talmudic sage responsible for the Lag B'omer celebrations, marked earlier this week - once sent his son to see Rabbi Yonatan Ben Esmai and Rabbi Yehudah Ben Gerim in order to receive a blessing from these great sages. When the son returned to his father, he complained that not only did they not bless him, they actually cursed him! Upon hearing from his son what the sages had told him, the distinguished father explained how the contents of these words were actually great blessings. (For example: They told him "you will plant but not harvest", which on the surface is a horrible curse, but also implied that he would have children who would not die.)

The two sages, as well as Rabbi Shimon, were obviously not trying to play a game with the son. If their intention had been to bless the son, they could have blessed him in the "conventional" manner. These rabbis were insinuating that there are situations when there is a flow of immense good and blessing, which to an untrained eye cannot be seen as being associated with goodness. It's just like the light of the sun: the light helps us see; it helps things grow; it makes us warm. However, should the light of the sun be too strong, the same light that has the ability to benefit can also cause blindness, since the light is too intense.

With the above in mind, we can look at something as devastating as the curses in the Torah in a different light. What is needed, however, is someone with the ability to see beneath the surface. Indeed, many Chassidic masters have offered interpretations and explanations on this and have uncovered the goodness inherent even in the invective words of the Torah. The story is told of when Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, was away for the Shabbat when the "rebuke" towards the end of the Torah was read. Since the Rebbe himself usually served as the official Torah reader, another person did the reading. That week, the Rebbe's pre-Bar Mitzvah son, Dovber (later to become the second Rebbe of Lubavitch), was so greatly affected by the "rebuke" that he developed a heart ailment. Three weeks later, just before Yom Kippur, his father was hesitant to allow him to fast, due to his lingering weakness. Later, the boy was asked, "Don't you hear the 'rebuke' every year?" He replied: "When father reads, one does not hear curses." From this story we see that although the "substitute" Torah reader uttered the same disturbing words that the Rebbe had uttered in years past, nevertheless, through the Rebbe's reading of the Torah, he was able to present the goodness which is hidden in the words.

The above attitude can also help us confront the always difficult issue of pain and suffering: There are no real answers to the question of "why?". As much as we may intellectually understand how suffering may strengthen a human being, it does little to ease a suffering heart which never reconciles itself to that pain. However, we must remember that we all have a purpose in life. Despite the absence of an answer, we must still strive to perfect our surroundings and the world we live in. In other words, tragedy must not immobilize us; rather it should motivate us to intensify ever more our commitment to the forces of good.

Very soon the day will come when all the goodness in the world will burst through the facade of the evil forces, bathing the entire world in the light of knowledge and the goodness of Hashem. This will take place with the revelation of Mashiach (Messiah), when the full extent of Hashem's goodness will be revealed to all Mankind. In the short while, until then, may Hashem bless us all, not only with trial and difficulties which may help us grow, but with goodness that we can also appreciate.

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Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah, youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy middle school.

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