I have pretty much always had difficulty with choices and decisions. Even small ones--like which breakfast cereal to pick, or which album to buy--used to cause me acute discomfort in earlier days never mind which college to choose or which career to embark on, though I do believe I'm starting to narrow the field on this last one. (As for marrying my beautiful wife, that was--most uncharacteristically for me--a no-brainer!)
I'm sad to say that in our culture, things have only gotten progressively worse for indecisive folks like me. A truly staggering (and growing) number of choices await us at every turn, from what flavor coffee to drink to what long-distance phone plan to choose to how many megabytes of RAM to start out with on our desktop and so on. (How those people who are looking to purchase iMacs can choose which color to go with is, frankly, beyond me.)
Writing in the current issue of
Civilization (the handsome magazine of the Library of Congress), Robert
Reich surveys "the choice fetish" in our society, and comments
that this torrent of trivial options does not exactly have the effect of
liberating and empowering us--as choices, ideally, are meant to do.
The words, "blessing" and "curse," might strike us as slightly archaic or inaccessible. The great commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, opens up for us the deeper meanings of the Hebrew words, brachah (blessing) and k'lalah (curse), revealing that the choice, put in a more modern medium, is really between growth and stagnation, between meaning and existential void. Bracha, he writes, refers to "the condition of unhindered progressive development, progressive prosperity," and is related to the Hebrew word for "pool" or "water supply." K'lalah, he notes, is not merely a lack of progress, but "the condition of becoming empty, devoid of self-substance, becoming shallow, worthless," based as it is on the Hebrew root meaning, "light" and "completely without weight." And the Torah stresses that this choice between richness and emptiness is "before you," emphasizing that it is completely up to each of us "to create the one or other for ourselves." (Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah; Deuteronomy, p. 194)
Many commentators (including Hirsch) note the strange syntax of our first verse: See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem The Torah really should say, "The blessing: if you hearken to the commandments of Hashem," in the same way it uses, if, when it mentions the curse. A beautiful and important teaching is being conveyed: the doing of a mitzvah itself is a blessing, quite apart from the wonderful rewards in this world and the next that are a consequence of doing it. As Hirsch writes, "The mental and moral act which is accomplished every time we faithfully obey the Torah is itself a blessed progress, a step forward of our whole being, and with every mitzva-act we bless ourselves "
Sure, the path of mitzvos requires some effort, as does anything important in life. And the path of pure self-indulgence (in the broadest sense) is usually more immediately pleasurable, at least in a physical sense. (The mitzvah to eat three delicious meals on Shabbos--as well as all the other physical delights of that most holy day--is a notable, but by no means isolated, exception.) This is just why Moshe uses the word, "today," right next to the word, "blessing," in presenting this choice before us (according to the great Torah commentary, Ohr HaChayim): the path that takes us away from Torah to follow our own desires is only experienced as a blessing today, in the immediate (and fleeting) present but not tomorrow, not later on when we realize that it's actually the opposite--a "cursed" and complete emptiness.
The Midrash (Tanchumah 3) on this parsha gives a parable as it elucidates our verses. An old man was sitting on the road, at the parting of two paths. The first had thorn bushes at its start, but became clear and open at its end; the second was smooth at the start, but ended in thorn bushes. This old man warned the passers-by, urging them to take the path which, at first (shortsighted) glance, looked difficult, but would become a delight later on. "And everyone who was wise listened to him and went on it, and exerted himself a little. He left in peace and arrived in peace. But those that didn't listen to him, they went and stumbled at the end "
Note the beautifully precise language of the Midrash: the wise man only had to exert himself "a little." The path of Torah and mitzvos does require some effort and exertion--but, in the broad perspective, and the final analysis, it's just "a little." Only in our fevered imaginations does it become some onerous and unlivable burden. The path of Torah, in actuality, is full of delights, from beginning to end--for heart, mind, soul and body.
Hashem has given us the freedom to make the significant choices in life that Robert Reich, quoted above, so yearns for in modern society--"what we stand for, to what and to whom we're going to commit our lives " And G-d has also given us the "time and energy" to devote to these big questions chiefly through the gift of Shabbos, when we can leisurely look at our options, and see them clearly.
May we all be wise enough to listen to the "old man" of the Sages' parable, Moshe our Teacher (speaking in the name of the Master of all wisdom), who so graciously has guided us to choose the best path at the start of this parsha: "The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem "
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the
Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP).
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