Years ago, while concluding Friday night services, I turned, as I always do, to the Mourner's Kaddish. To my utter dismay, scribbled across the middle of the page was the imprecation "To hell with the world." (In fact, the unknown author used a much harsher phrase that is unprintable here.) After getting over the initial shock of seeing my siddur desecrated, I couldn't help but note the stunning irony: Scrawled over words of blessing and the affirmation of God's omnipresence were the dark tentacles of a curse.
And this is the very point of the above anecdote, although not of the anonymous blasphemer, namely, our lives are never static, never one color or one dimension. At any given moment, we are reaping the bounty of blessing while simultaneously staring straight into the eyes of the Angel of Death. Both blessings and curses are our companions in this world.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, tries to make sense of this phenomenon. It is known as one of the two tocheichah [rebuke] texts, the other being B'chukotai. It begins with a number of beautiful blessings (Deuteronomy 28:3-14) that express simple, bucolic hopefulness, for example, "Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country" (Deuteronomy 28:3) and "Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings." (Deuteronomy 28:6) There are also blessings for fertile fields and wombs as well as for rain.
These gentle blessings are followed by the tocheichah, a long list of curses (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), whose number (traditionally the rabbis count ninety-eight of them!), ferocity, and sheer horror swallow up the delicate and kind blessings in the same way that the emaciated cows devoured the fat ones in Pharaoh's dreams. They state that death, disease, destruction, cannibalism, servitude, outliving one's children, pestilence, and untold suffering will all surely descend upon us if we do not listen to God and obey the mitzvot.
Trying to ascertain from where these blessings and curses come is a complicated business. Of course, our biblical author posits a very straightforward bromide: If you obey God, the Holy One will bless you; if you disobey God, the Holy One will curse you. Many people believed and still believe in this form of reward and punishment-in a mighty, awesome, and terrifying God. However, I have to believe that there always were (and still are) more than a few people who did not accept this moral calculus. They knew that they rarely deserved the dire straits through which they have passed or, for that matter, the great success they may have achieved.
We go through life with the blessings and the curses. Sometimes the curses blot out the blessings and sometimes the blessings shine with a light so intense that the curses seem to shrink and fade away. But the blessings and the curses are always present. That is our existential truth. And what helps us keep our balance is the knowledge of God's loving presence in our lives and the strength we derive from that love.
When I turn to the Mourner's Kaddish all these years later, I still notice the unerased epithet scrawled over the Aramaic words of praise. But very quickly, the words of the Kaddish cast the curse into oblivion. Sure the pencil markings are still there in the background. But the curse's power is, at least for the moment, null and void.
So as we arrive at this week's parashah on the cusp of the New Year, we recall the strict and eternal antiquarian Judge of Ki Tavo. But we also confidently proclaim that our God is not the Ki Tavo-style God who would "delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out." (Deuteronomy 28:63) No, the God to whom we pray is not the fierce, vengeful warrior of the curse. The God to whom I pray is a nurturing, loving, and forgiving God who gives us strength and hope and who enables me to count my days-as well as my blessings-to attain a heart of wisdom.