This sermon was preached by friend of the House, Jay Stanton, at KAM Isaiah here in Hyde Park:
Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing
This week’s parashah opens by challenging us to visualize an amazing scene. Commanding us to see, the portion starts with the word r’eh:
“See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal – both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.” (New JPS translation)
This passage seems to present us with a binary between blessing and curse: two mountains separated by a valley full of Israelites. On one, we recite all the blessings of life, and on the other, all the curses. Up one slope, we place everything good: prosperity, abundance, compassion; up the opposite slope, we place everything evil: hatred, violence, famine. So we choose blessing, reject curse, and only good things happen to us for the rest of time. Easy enough, right?
Our experiences of doing good deeds and following mitzvot have not banished evil from our midst. Recent shooting sprees and climate scorching show that to us on a global level, and we all have personal examples of good deeds leading to bad consequences. At face value, our world doesn’t reflect our Torah.
We constructed the binary we see between blessing and curse. This passage tells the story of its construction. My mentor Kate Bornstein teaches that all binaries are false, and I have yet to be confronted with a counterexample. Binaries invite us to consider their fallacy; we usually gain something from their simplification while we lose something else. Generalizations help us build a coherent picture of our surroundings, but that picture is a lot more complicated than a mountain of curses and a mountain of blessings. When we look at the text closely, this seeming binary gets more complex.
God gives us both blessing and curse. Moreover, both blessing and curse are present in the Promised Land. If God wanted us to be completely free from curse, it would have been left on the other side of the Jordan, in somebody else’s land, apart, at least temporarily, from the holy people. The Deuteronomist invites us to consider the relationship between holy people and holy space. Yet we are required to proclaim curses within the land of Israel, the spatial realm of holiness. Cursing is holy even when we don’t start a stream of curses with the word. The power to curse is divine. Made in the divine image, we share that power.
Understanding curse as a gift from God is not easy. The predominant culture in America views God as only good, a Force repelling evil which can help you do likewise if you profess belief. Furthermore, when religious leaders try to explain evil in the world, they often reject the notion that evil comes from God. Instead, they blame individuals or categories of people, often ones that include me. So, in this post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world where genocide, terrorism, and generational poverty still afflict us on a mass scale, and joblessness, grief, and illness afflict us on a personal level, we want to divorce ourselves from any discussion of reward and punishment as God-given. Or we take God as Rewarder-and-Punisher as a fact we must believe about the divine in order to accept its existence and reject God altogether. This perception of unfairness on God’s part is not merely an image of an unexamined popular psyche; it permeates academia as well. We call the inconsistency “the problem of theodicy.”
What if theodicy is not a problem? We live in a complex global society, where whether we remember to turn the lights off when we leave a room in Hyde Park affects people in Mongolia. Hardly any action we take or choice that we make has consequences only impacting ourselves. Bad things happen to people who are doing good things. If God causes everything, then God is the cause of evil as well as good. By presuming that God works on a merit system, we have trouble explaining suffering in the world. I recently finished the book The Jew in the Lotus, in which Rodger Kamenetz describes his experience as a witness to interfaith dialogue between Jews and Tibetan Buddhists including the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Kamenetz relates a conversation about suffering between a Jew who spent time as a Buddhist and a Buddhist who was raised as a Jew. Buddhists try to explain why suffering occurs and how we can eliminate it. Jews acknowledge its existence and strive to live with it on a daily basis. We don’t try to explain away our suffering; we ask what we can do to alleviate pain.
God invites us to recognize curse and blessing as extremes. We in the valley, or the Midwest, can’t actually live on Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, either in fact or metaphorically. Unlike the sages of Monty Python, we can’t always look on the bright side of life. Curse and blessing surround us, and they are often not separable on distinct mountains. A friend dies, and we realize how deeply we were impacted by her presence. We move to a new place to pursue new opportunities, and we leave our home behind. We use the extremes of blessing and curse to make sense of our own lives. Most of the time, we experience both simultaneously. Yet we navigate our world using the landmarks of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.
Often, we take this navigation system as a law. We are overeager to call one thing a blessing and something else a curse, using our own value system to place more situations at one extreme or another than actually belong there. We forget that both blessing and curse are gifts, and we forget that the power of each stems from its relationship to the other and their mutual juxtaposition. They help us choose to live rightly. They help us do tikkun olam. The presence of both blessing and curse gives us the opportunity to bring blessing to the parts of society or our lives that we view as cursed. When we feel we are only blessed and not cursed, the presence of both curse and blessing argues against complacency. God gave us blessing and curse in distinction to each other so we can be agents of change in our own lives and in our world.
The rabbinic tradition suggests that we say one hundred blessings throughout the day. Forty is a big number in Judaism, and one hundred is two-and-a-half times bigger; the task seems overwhelming. However, we are encouraged to say blessings over the small things in life. We say blessings over drinking a glass of water, eating, seeing a great scholar – all daily activities in Hyde Park. We pepper our day with blessings to remind us that they are present to us in the midst of the curses and that we can invoke a blessing whenever necessary.
Blessings themselves aren’t necessarily all good, either. A Midrash teaches us that two angels are sent to follow us on Shabbat. One is evil, and one is good. When we keep Shabbat, the good one shares the blessing, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.” When we break Shabbat, the evil one says, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.” Tonight, I want to offer a different blessing.
In the Jewish calendar, we are in a period of reflection and self-examination. Tomorrow night we begin the month Elul. We take the month to start our process of t’shuvah, repentance, to get ready for the High Holidays. We are involved in a process of reconciliation with God, moving from the pain of Tisha B’av – which commemorates the destruction of the Temple and other national tragedies – to the joy of Simjat Torah. So my blessing for us tonight is this: may we be different next week than we are this week, and may we be different next year than we are this year. In the coming year, may we navigate our lives juxtaposing blessing and curse. May we use our awareness of God’s gifts of curse and blessing to shine light in dark places. And that way, may we bring more peace and wholeness – sh’leimut – to the world.