The Blessings, the Curses, and the Religious Value of Pleasure

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Joshua Skootsky

Our attention often focuses on the dramatic punishments which dominate Parshat Bekhukotai. After all, numerically, there are many more verses dedicated to the curses.

Leviticus 26:3-13 (10 verses) provide a short introduction to Parshat Bekhukotai, of blessings that befall the Jewish people when they follow the laws of the Torah. Leviticus 26:14-46 (32 verses) detail the curses that will happen when the Jews do not follow the laws of the Torah.

Yet, Rabbi Abraham bar Meir Ibn Ezra HaSepharadi comments to the conclusion of the blessings (Leviticus 26:13):

And those with no brains say:
‘The curses are more numerous than the blessings.”
But they have not spoken the truth,
since the blessings are very general
and the the curses very specific
to strike fear in the hearts of the listeners.
And to one who looks closely,
my words will become clearer.

Therefore, we must either take the blessings very seriously, at least as seriously as the curses, or not have any brains.

Proof that Rambam had brains can be adduced from his equation of the blessings to the curses in the Hilchot Teshuva 10:1, where he discusses the proper mode of serving G-d:

Don’t say, “I will do the commandments of the Torah and involve myself in its wisdom so that I will receive the blessings written in the Torah, or so that I will merit the World-to-Come; and I will stay far from the sins that the Torah warns about, so that I will be saved from the curses written in the Torah, and not be cut off from the World-to-Come.”

Rambam continues (Teshuva 10:3-4):

One who serves out of love, involves themselves in Torah and commandments, walking in the ways of wisdom – not due to any worldly thing, not the fear of curses, or to gain wealth, but rather – they do what is true, because it is true – and in the end, the good that comes is included in this.

[4] This level is a very high level, and not all who are wise reach it. It is the level of Abraham, our father, whom the Holy One, Blessed is He, called “One who loves me,” since he did not serve G-d for any reason other than love.

What is the relationship between serving G-d out of pure love, and receiving “in the end,” the spiritual and physical good of blessings, wealth, and the World-to-Come?

This question is heightened by the Rambam’s example of Abraham as someone who worshiped G-d out of pure love. After all, if we read Genesis, we note that from the very beginning of Abraham’s story in Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12) that G-d promises Abraham a nation, riches, and fame. Throughout his entire life, G-d makes Abraham many promises of children who will inherit the land, and great success.

The Talmud Yerushalmi at the conclusion of Kiddushin (4:12) takes up the topic of Abraham’s physical wealth, as a reward from G-d for the observance of the Torah (in a manner similar to the blessings of Bekhukotai, which are predicated on observance of the Torah), before segueing into the strongest endorsement of physical pleasure in this world having spiritual value. Not partaking of these blessings is seen as a sin of some kind.

We see with Abraham, our father, that he observed the laws of the Torah before they came into the world, “Since Abraham listened to my voice, observed my safeguards , my commandments, my decrees, and my Torah” (Genesis 26:5).

Therefore, G-d made him great, and blessed him in his youth, and then gave him hope and a lasting legacy into his old age.

In his youth, the verse says, “Abraham had much cattle, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2).”

And in his old age, “And Abraham was old, having come through many days, and G-d blessed Abraham with everything (Genesis 24:1).”

R’ Chezkiaya R’ Kohen, in the name of Rav, says, “It is forbidden to live in a city that has no doctor, bathhouse, or a court that punishes and imprisons.”

R’ Yose, son of R’ Bun, says, “It is forbidden to live in a city that doesn’t have a nice garden.”

R’ Chezkiaya R’ Kohen, in the name of Rav, says, “In the future, one will have to give an accounting before The Judge of all that his eye saw, but did not eat.”

R’ Eliezer observed that teaching carefully, so each year he put aside money to eat the new fruit in their season.

The Yerushalmi celebrates the material wealth that Abraham enjoyed in return for Torah observance, before comparing necessities like a doctor to the aesthetic pleasures of a garden. Yet, what is the spiritual value of these blessings, such that we will be required to give an accounting before the True Judge and King of Kings for not partaking of them?

A possible approach can be found the Rambam (Shofetim 12:4-5), who examines the interplay of physical blessings with a life dedicated to the loving service of G-d, continuing the discussion from Hilkhot Teshuva, in the conclusion of Mishneh Torah with his description of the Messianic age:

[4] The Prophets and the Wise did not desire the Messianic age to come so that they could rule over the world… or eat, drink, and be merry. Rather, they wished to be free to pursue Torah and Wisdom, and not have to spend all of their time focused on mere survival, so that they would merit the World-to-Come, as I explained in Hilchot Teshuva.

[5] In that time, there will be no famine, war, jealousy, or competition – there will just be much good, widely spread, and all of the delicacies will be plentiful like dust. There will be no occupation other than that of coming to know G-d. Therefore, people will be wise, and they will know things that are locked and deep, and they will understand their Creator as well as human strength allows.

For the Rambam, physical blessings are a double blessing. True, they allow rest from work, and enjoyment of riches and wealth. Yet, they also provide the opportunity to serve G-d with an unworried heart and mind. To borrow a phrase from Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rambam says that only when life is not “nasty, brutish, and short” can humanity as a whole properly approach G-d. The enjoyment of physical pleasures and blessings of this world, in a broad, communal sense, just like collective blessings that introduce Bekhukotai, allow for the community as a whole to have time for the restful contemplation and focus on Torah and other wisdoms as a way of coming closer to G-d.

Similarly, in the Yerushalmi, the example of R’ Eliezer may serve to blunt the most hedonistic or Romantic interpretations. R’ Eliezer sought out new fruit in its proper time presumably so that he could make the blessing of Shechechiyanu – blessing G-d with thanks for creating such nice things in this world. In this sense, rather than serving as a springboard or means to a spiritual end, it is possible to view physical blessings themselves as invitations to thank and bless G-d for doing such good to us.

Therefore, Ibn Ezra’s comment, that the blessings are much better than the curses, may be rooted in a deep awareness of how poverty affects humanity’s spiritual ambitions. Ibn Ezra was famously poor, and suffered greatly, traveling the world as an itinerant polymath-poet and biblical interpreter. In a memorable line, he laments his abject failure to establish gainful employment. “If I sold burial shrouds \ people would stop dying.” Ibn Ezra knew, perhaps better than others, that the blessings in our Parsha serve not only as physical rewards for the observance of commandments, but as the creation of an environment where we will all be able to turn our physical, intellectual, and spiritual efforts towards the knowledge of G-d, and thereby achieve our loftiest spiritual and ethical goals.

Joshua Skootsky was part of SBM 2012, and will be returning this summer.

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