יום שני, 30 ביוני 2014

Curses and Blessings

And the lord your god turned the curse into blessing for you,  for the lord your god loves you
Pinchas Leiser

The above dependant clause in Parashat Ki Tetseh, (Devarim 32 4-7) is a kind of "parenthetical statement" appearing in the context of the injunction against Ammonites and Moabites entering the Assembly of the Lord
Neither Ammonite nor Moabite shall come into the Lord's assembly. Even his tenth generation shall not come into the Lord's assembly ever. Because they did not greet you with bread and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and for their hiring against you Balaam son of Beor from Aram Naharaim to curse you. But the Lord your God did not want to listen to Balaam, and the Lord your God turned the curse into blessing for you, for the Lord your God loves you. You shall not seek their well-being and there good all your days, forever.
The main subject is the prohibition against Ammonites and Moabites entering into the Lord's assembly, i.e., permitting them to marry a daughter of Israel. The Torah gives two reasons for the prohibition: Ammon and Moab's refusal to provide the Children of Israel with "bread and water", and the hiring of Balaam to curse Israel. In passing, the Torah tells us that God turned the curse into a blessing.
It is interesting to note that our Sages neutralized the prohibition in two ways:
a.         They restricted the probation to males. The proper nouns "Amoni" and "Moavi" may - according to Hebrew grammar - be read as all (male and female) Ammonites and Moabites, or as specifically male members of said nations. The Sages chose the latter reading, thus excluding females from the prohibition. (Sifri, Devarim, 248; Bavli, Yevamot 69b)
b.        "Came Sanherib and mixed the nations." (Berahot 28a) - the prohibition is no longer in effect because there is no way to identify Amonites and Moabites.
Perhaps one might say that these rabbinical readings in effect turned the curse which lay upon the Ammonites and Moabites into a blessing and facilitated their joining the Jewish people and "the Lord's assembly" as members with full rights.
The transformation of the curses into blessings is not explicitly mentioned in this week's parasha; there may be intimations of such as Balaam seems to repeat himself in different formulations. For example (Bemidbar 24:13):
Should Balak give me his houseful of silver and gold, I could not cross the word of the Lord to do either a good thing or a bad one from my own heart; that which the Lord speaks to me, it alone can I speak.
That is to say: It seems that were Balaam to be given the option of expressing his true feelings, he certainly would have accommodated Balak's desires and cursed Israel; only his being turned into a conduit for the word of God defused the curse.
The transformation of curse into blessing invites us to examine the concepts of blessing and curse, their origins, their influence, their reversibility and their relativity.
What is the power of curses and blessings, and from where does it derive?
God blessed the Sabbath day when he rested from all His labor. He also blessed Adam and Eve with "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth."
The first creation in the Bible to be cursed by God is the primeval serpent in the Garden of Eden - "Cursed be you of all cattle..."
God decreed death for Adam and Eve. Eve was told "In pain shall you bear children", but she was not cursed. Adam was told "The earth shall be cursed because of you."
Cain too, following his murder of Abel, was told by God: "Cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth"
The source of these curses is God's response to Man's behavior. The Torah describes in human terms the consequences of his actions when he violates the divine will.
God's blessing of Noah and his sons upon their exiting the ark is similar to His blessing of Adam and Eve.
Noah is the first person in Scripture to curse and to bless; he curses Canaan, son of Ham, for his violation of his dignity, and he blesses "God, Lord of Shem" because Shem and his brother Yafet covered their father's shame.
It is noteworthy that Noah does not attribute the curse to the Lord, but the blessing has a connection to God, Lord of Shem. Is this curse a human emotional reaction, without a divine origin, as against blessings which derive their power from God?
In any case, Avraham is the first person to be notified that God will be involved in the blessings and the curses which people shower upon him, as is written "I shall bless those who bless you, and those who curse you shall I curse". The covenant between God and Avraham transforms, as it were, people's relationship to Avraham into relationship to the God of Avraham, and therefore He responds to these references with complete identification.
The blessing passed on from father to son - the Blessing of Avraham - becomes a central motif in the Book of Bereishit; it becomes the point of contention between Yaakov and Esav; on his deathbed Yaakov blesses his sons "each according to his blessing" (we would hardly be inclined to categorize certain of his messages to his sons as 'blessings').
It would seem, then, that all these blessings are related, in one way or another, to God as the source of the blessing.
Space does not permit dealing with all of the blessings and curses in the Torah; suffice it to recall that which is written with reference to the Priestly Benediction: "And they shall place my name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them." The priests are but channels through which God's blessings reach the Children of Israel.
The singular occasion of the proclamation of the blessings at Mt. Grizim and the curses at Mt. Eval (Parashat Ki Tavo) is another example of blessings and curses being transferred though human means although the origin is divine.
Returning to Balaam, we discover that our Sages, of blessed memory (Sanhedrin 105b), attempt - through analysis of the blessing emitting from Balaam's lips - to decipher what was the hidden message he wished to transmit:
And the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth" - Rabbi Elazar said: An angel. Rabbi Yonatan said: A hook.
Rabbi Yochanan said: From that scoundrel evil man's blessing we can learn what was in his heart.
R. Johanan said: From the blessings of that wicked man you may learn his intentions: Thus he wished to curse them that they [the Israelites] should possess no synagogues or school-houses  -  [this is deduced from] "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob"; that the Shechinah should not rest upon them  -  "and thy tabernacles, O Israel"; that their kingdom should not endure  -  "As the valleys are they spread forth"; that they might have no olive trees and vineyards  -  "as gardens by the river's side"; that their odor might not be fragrant  - "as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted"; that their kings might not be tall  -  "and as cedar trees beside the waters"; that they might not have a king the son of a king  -  "He shall pour the water out of his bucket"; that their kingdom might not rule over other nations  -  "and his seed shall be in many waters"; that their kingdom might not be strong  -  "and his king shall be higher than Agag"; that their kingdom might not be awe-inspiring  -  "and his kingdom shall be exalted".
R. Abba b. Kahana said: All of them reverted back to curses, excepting the one about synagogues and schoolhouses, for it is written, "But the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing for thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee"; "the curse" [in the singular], but not the curses.
Additional Sages deciphered the hidden messages in Balaam's words, reading his blessings as concealed curses. Rabbi Abba goes so far as to claim that some of these veiled curses were actually realized.
Does this mean that one should be concerned when cursed by another, even when the curser is considered by the Torah and the Sages to be a wicked person?
True, Rav Yehuda (Sanhedrin 90b, and other locations) said: "A scholar's curses, even on insignificant matters, take effect." Curses by a sage are dangerous, because they are liable to affect a person even if he is not deserving of punishment. But this is said only in reference to a scholar's curse, and perhaps Rav Yehudah is warning scholars to guard their tongue, as per the admonition: "Scholars, be cautious with your words, lest from your words they [your students] may learn to lie."
It may be that the intention of the Torah and our scholars is to tell us that everyone's curses have power; should someone's curse match God's intention to hurt another, that someone, regardless of his righteousness or his wickedness, becomes a channel for God's will.
But perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the story of Balaam's curses/blessings and other passages relating to the story is that curses and blessings are reversible and relative. It seems to me that both Balaam's attempts to view Israel from different angles and the placement of the blessing at Mt. Grizim and the curse at Mt. Eval come to instruct us that blessings and curses are often dependant upon points of view and meanings attached to the words. We are not dealing with absolute and irreversible concepts.
Sometimes there is a tendency to view a certain situation as a fateful curse. Such a deterministic view can lead us to despair and indifference; we feel that "there's nothing we can do" because in any case "nothing will ever change". Such feelings exist both in trying personal situations and in periods when the national and social mood is, in many aspects, at a nadir.
It seems to me that "the mouth of the ass", created on Sabbath eve at twilight, is a metaphor for hidden potentials for hope which exist within the seemingly cursed reality, coming to teach us that it is in our power to place the word of God within our mouths and to look at the world and all its inhabitants through a prism of blessing. The blessing pronounced by the priests prior to the Priestly Benediction may be understood as a reminder to bless the Jewish people "with love", - to transfer to us the ability to love and to strive for peace with all the universe's creations.
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.

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