August 22nd-23rd, 2003
25 Av, 5763
"See, I present before you today a blessing [b’racha] and a curse [k’lala].
The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d,
that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the
commandments of Hashem, your G-d, and you stray from the path that I
command you today…" (11, 26-28; Artscroll translation)
These are the opening words of the Torah portion, as Moshe continues his
oration before the assembled Jewish people prior to his death and their
entrance into the Land of Israel.
Two different paths in life--and two opposing outcomes--are presented
before them with no ambiguity whatsoever. (The Torah will employ similarly
stark language, and existential alternatives, in the portion of Netzavim--which
is read a few weeks from now on the Shabbos prior to Rosh Hashanah.) The
first word, "Re’eh," "SEE," is in the singular form (unlike the rest of
the passage), for each individual is urged to meditate on the clear and
momentous choice before him. You can’t blend into the crowd…
On one side, there is a life of dedication to the Torah in study and
practice--actualizing one’s individual spiritual potential and our
communal mission as a people. The inevitable result of such a path:
blessing, b’racha--"the condition of unhindered progressive development,
progressive prosperity" (S. R. Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah). On the
other side, there is disregard of G-d’s directives, an abrogation of our
responsibility as a people (for the sake of straying after alternative
lifestyles, as it were). The result: curse, k’lala in Hebrew--related to
the root, kal, which means, "light" (not heavy). As Rabbi Samson Raphael
Hirsch beautifully explains, the word, k’lala, therefore, connotes the
"condition of becoming empty, devoid of self-substance, becoming shallow,
worthless (completely without weight)."
Here’s one way of paraphrasing Moshe’s words. "You can either keep the
Torah, and experience a rich life of meaning and progressive growth as
people--i.e., spiritual fullness. Or you can choose to abandon the Torah,
and you will then live disconnected from the Source of truth and meaning
in existence--i.e, spiritual emptiness (regardless of how many physical
pleasures and comforts you happen to enjoy)."
Let’s try to consider--better, to really see (re’eh!)--the truth being
conveyed here. A Torah way of life is rich and meaningful, and it has been
presented before us ready-made. Rather than search for meaning (or joy) in
far-flung places, we can find it waiting for us in every word of Torah we
study and every mitzvah we perform. (As Moshe memorably reminds us in
Netzavim, the Torah is not distant, but rather, "very near to you—in your
mouth and your heart—to perform it.") Every single mitzvah is a chibur
(connection) to the Almighty, a conduit through which G-d illuminates our
neshama (soul) and allows us to come closer to Him. Every single mitzvah
elevates and refines us as human beings, apart from the cosmic spiritual
"rectifications" it effects throughout G-d’s creation (spoken about at
length in the Jewish mystical tradition).
Every mitzvah is a diamond (with an infinity of carats), and we should see
our lives in this world as being a blessed opportunity to enrich and
beautify ourselves--body and soul--with as many diamonds as we can.
Rabbi Shimon (in Ethics of the Fathers) tells us that the world stands on
three pillars: Torah study, service of G-d (especially prayer) and doing
kindness for others. In a sense, this sums up the mitzvos of the Torah, in
all their multiplicity and scope. Keeping the commandments of the Torah
upholds and sustains the world--for we are strengthening the pillars on
which it stands!
Not that other pursuits in life are inherently worthless. But if they are
pursued for their own sake--i.e., cut off from the larger, overriding
purpose of getting closer to G-d, and serving Him--then they ultimately
lead us nowhere. (Floating in space…spiritual weightlessness!) In fact,
what the Torah really wants is for us to connect everything in life to
that overriding purpose, and in that way, we make everything we do into a
mitzvah! "In all your ways, know Him," writes King Solomon (Proverbs).
Meaning that we should have G-d in mind in all our ways (eating, sleeping,
exercising, relaxing)…and thereby transform those activities into holy
Note that this absolutely does NOT mean we may not take physical pleasure
in our eating (and other daily activities), as we try to "elevate" them.
It just means that our overriding purpose in all we do should be to serve
G-d, and that we should be careful not to let the (permitted) physical
pleasures that G-d WANTS US to enjoy become the center of our lives. To
take pleasure in what G-d has given us (and to thank Him) is, in fact, an
obligation in Judaism!
Hirsch notes that Moshe does not say that the blessing will come to us,
"if we keep the commandments," as a result of the performance. Rather, the
Torah says: "the blessing: that you hearken to the commandments."
Performing the mitzvah in and of itself is the blessing! Experiencing the
connection to G-d that each mitzvah represents is itself the blessing! As
he puts it:
"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 mitzvah-act we bless ourselves." (Hirsch, Comm. to
Deuteronomy: p. 195)
It sounds bizarre, but there is really no better blessing you can give
someone else…than to keep the Torah’s commandments more faithfully! For
they are the source, and wellspring, of blessing! Of course, we should
still wish each other--and pray for--the blessings of good health, a
steady livelihood, etc., because these ultimately enable us to keep the
Torah better. This, in fact, is how Maimonidies explains the physical
blessings the Torah promises for performance of the commandments (even
though the essential reward, the Talmud tells us, is reserved for the next
world). They are conditions for further spiritual growth that G-d grants
us so we can achieve our spiritual potential. (In other words, a happy,
healthy and well-fed diamond collector is the most productive diamond
collector!) But the main blessing is the Torah itself!
Moshe has put it all in perspective. On the one side: growth and meaning.
On the other side--gosh, it’s kind of frightening--there’s k’lala. That
is, nothing at all.
May we all see that keeping the Torah’s commandments more faithfully is
our path to blessing…and may Hashem give us the strength, good health and
ability to spend long days and years collecting diamonds.
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