On the Power of Blessings and Curses
It is the season of blessings and curses. Three weeks ago, we read the majestic words, “See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26) This week, we have a dramatic and extended reflection on blessings and curses as consequences of connection or disconnection with God. And just two weeks from now, we will recite the powerful proclamation of “Who shall live and who shall die” in the beloved and dreaded Unetaneh Tokef prayer.
Deep reflection on the possibilities of the New Year lie at the core of this season. Will my loved ones and I be healthy? Will we be fulfilled or distressed? What challenges will we have to face? What joys will we experience and what losses?
It is surely not coincidental that at just this moment of the liturgical calendar, the Torah brings us the description of the striking ritual of blessings and curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, to be performed once the Israelites cross the Jordan and enter into the Land.
Half of the tribes will stand on Mount Gerizim and half will stand on Mount Eval as the Levites proclaim the extended blessings and curses. The central message is this: If you are aligned and connected to God and faithful to the commandments, you will be blessed; and if you grow distant, alienated or indifferent to the Divine, you will be cursed. Famously, the words of the curses (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), filled with lurid descriptions of suffering to be inflicted on the Israelites, are chanted in synagogue in an undertone, presumably because they are too awful to be read in full voice.
This year I noticed something that had not drawn my attention before. It is quite apparent in the passage that the description of the curses is far longer and more attention-grabbing than the blessings. First, there is a separate section of curses: “Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image.” (Deuteronomy 27:15-26) Then comes an extended set of blessings, including “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). And then comes the “tocheicha,” the great reproof (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), filled with terrible depictions of the suffering the Israelites will incur if they abandon God, in a whopping 53 verses.
People today who stand before an open Torah scroll notice that the first set of curses (Deuteronomy 27:15-26) is placed in the text in a bold and unique way. Most obviously, the latter segment of 53 curses is dramatic in both its length and its vividness. The curses (more than the blessings) are clearly meant to capture our attention. Famously, the words of the curses, filled with lurid descriptions of suffering to be inflicted on the Israelites, are chanted in synagogue in an undertone.
What are we to learn from the predominance of curses over blessings in this passage?
I don’t accept the superficial impression that God wants to terrify the Israelites into submission, nor that God wants to put more emphasis on threats than on the promise of blessings. That is not the God I worship.
Rather, I think that the predominance of curses over blessings in this text is an expression of how human beings actually experience our lives.
Did you ever notice that if you get a range of input from someone about something you said or did, the one negative comment sticks more intensely in your mind than the 10 (or more!) positive ones? I used to think this was only a quirk in the brains of those who struggle with low self-esteem.
But neuroscience tells us otherwise. There are essential evolutionary reasons why we — all of us — experience negative incidents more powerfully than positive ones. Simply put, our continued existence once depended on our alertness to sources of danger. Something in our ancient (“reptilian”) brain leaps into a state of alarm when it perceives a possible threat. In our day, this is rarely a wild animal heading our way. But our brains react to criticism, conflict and a variety of other “negative” experiences as if that “curse” might truly endanger us.
In other words, our biology and neurology condition us to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive because our lives depend on our attentiveness to that which is deemed dangerous.
That is precisely why Judaism, along with many other religious traditions, urges us to intentionally cultivate awareness of blessings, of gratitude, what our tradition calls “hakarat hatov.” What instinctively seizes our attention is the negative. As for the positive, we must actively seek it out. We must scan the moments of our days for that which is beautiful, nourishing and helpful.
The rabbis taught that we are to recite 100 blessings every day. That does not mean, of course, that we should mechanically count up the liturgical blessings we recite, but that we should try to be in a state of gratitude for as many moments of our lives as we can.
When we spend more of our time in gratitude, we tend to be happier, more grateful and more loving, and we naturally bless the people around us with our presence. May we make the New Year a year full of blessings.
This column first appeared in the J Weekly https://jweekly.com/2023/08/31/the-lengthy-list-of-curses-in-torah-reflects-our-primal-brain/