On Thursday when President Barak Obama gave his speech on the Middle East and when he then met with Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday I thought I would speak today about it and the utter betrayal I feel from the Obama Administration. But then I saw Marisol Baranes preparing for today’s baby naming Kiddush and she had little Yael with her. When I saw the blessing that Yael is to her and Andy and to all of us, I knew I could not speak about politics today, but about blessings.
So today I would like to speak to you about blessings and their other side, curses. Blessings and curses: Are the real? Do they have any power? Today’s parsha is filled with both, although the list of blessings is much shorter than the list of curses. Both blessings and curses, the Torah teaches, are a direct consequence of our behavior.
The curses are presented in a long and a terrifying list called the Toch’cha, “The Great Threat” or “The Great Warning.” If you do not obey—then this will happen to you. And if you still do not obey—then this and this will happen to you. And if you still don’t get it—then this and this and this will happen to you. It’s a frightening list with wave after wave after wave of threats and hence the tradition is that these curses are to be read as quietly and quickly as possible. No one, no matter how hardhearted they may be, can read this portion without shivering and without feeling a bit of apprehension and dread—especially since all of them eventually did subsequently happened to us.
Rabbi Jack Reimer once introduced me to a fascinating book published by Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Lomer Heren Gitte Bisirus, “May We Hear Good Tidings,” written by Professor Chaim Guri. The book is a collection of dozens of Yiddish blessings and hundreds of Yiddish curses. Just as in the Torah, the blessings are a shorter list than the curses. I’m not sure why. Could it be because promises of reward don’t convince us to behave as well as threats of retribution?
Let me share with you a few of my favorite blessings and curses from this book. 1st the blessings:
· “A blessing on your head.” Do you remember that one? Did anyone ever say that to you when you were a child? It was even a song in Fiddler on the Roof.
· A guta shaw, or in Hebrew, B’shaat tova, meaning, when something happens, let it be “At a good time.” Do you know when this blessing is said? For example, when you told someone that you were pregnant or engaged. You don’t say, mazal tov to something that hasn’t happened, and possibly may not. This is a blessing for the good to happen.
· “Be healthy.” Zei gezunt. I am sure everyone here has heard that one. And perhaps you know its cousin: Abi gezunt, which means “as long as you have your health, what else matters?” When you are young you take your health for granted and you think that this blessing is unnecessary. But when you get older, you know better, and you appreciate this blessing better. Isn’t that so?
· “Gd protect us from fire and water and from people’s mouths.” It expresses the truth that people’s mouths can be as dangerous and as harmful to us as fire and water are.
· “May it never be worse.” I like this blessing because it expresses gratitude and contentment with what we have. It only prays that things may never be worse than they are today.
· And one last blessing, “May you live to be 120.” Do you know the origin of this blessing? It comes from Moses our teacher, who lived to be 120. Surely it would be greedy to ask for more years than he got, and so we only wish that we may live as long as he did.
Enough blessings! Now let me share some of my favorite curses. Let me begin with a long one:
· “May you break your head. May your eyes drop out. May your mouth twist sideways. May your tongue drop out. May your arms and legs not work. May your legs be chopped out from under you. May your liver come out of your nostrils piece by piece. May your innards come out. May your guts be pulled out of you. May your bones rot in Hell. [And then comes the climax:] And may your soul leave you!”
Evidently, according to this curse, losing your soul is the very worst thing that can happen to you, even worse than damaging your body.
Now let me share some shorter curses.
· “May the 3rd plague that befell Egypt come upon you.” That takes some Biblical literacy to appreciate. You have to open a Chumash and look up the 10 plagues in order to understand this one. Do you know what the 3rd plague was? That’s right—lice.
· “May a young child bear your name.” Now if you’re Sephardic and name your children after the living, then it makes no sense. But these are Yiddish curses from Ashkenazic Jews that name after dead relatives. So “may a young child bear your name” simply means: Drop dead!
· “May people buy your clothes from your father.” It means may you die in the lifetime of your father, and may he have to sell your clothes to whoever wants to buy them.
· Here’s another one I like for its vividness: “May worms hold a wedding in your stomach and may they invite all their relatives to attend.” I ask you: Isn’t that creative?
· This one is more familiar, you may have heard it: “May you be like a [oil] lamp—that is: may you hang by day, burn by night, and be snuffed out in the morning.”
· And see what you think of this one: “May you become so rich that your widow’s husband should never have to work a day.” Ouch! That one hits you in the kishkes, doesn’t it?
· And how is this for someone who’s going into business: “May you have a well stocked store, and may your customers never ask for what you have but always for what you don’t.”
· And I like this one, “May you have Haman’s glory and Korach’s miracle.” Do you understand that? Haman’s glory? Haman had only disgrace. And Korach’s miracle? The earth opened up and swallowed him alive.
· Here’s a subtle one, “May you never become old.” It means, of course, may you die young.
· And this one you probably know, “May you have 100 houses and may you have 100 rooms in every house, and may you have 20 beds in every room and may fever toss you from one bed to another and keep you from sleeping.” The point of that curse is to remind us that wealth by itself is nothing, that, even if you have everything you can imagine, you can still suffer miserably.
· A similar curse: “May you have 20 safes full of gold, and may you spend it all on doctors.”
· “May your luck light the way for you, like the moon at the end of the month.” Get it? There’s no light from the moon at the end of the month?
· “May your stomach make as much noise as a grogger does on Purim.”
· “May all your teeth fall out but one—and may you have a tooth ache in that one.”
· “May you eat chopped egg with onion; pickled herring; gefilte fish with chreyn; lokshen soup with kneydlach; salt beef with latkes; boiled beef with tzimmes every day; and may you choke on every bite.”
· “May you become world famous—in medical records.”
· Here’s my favorite: “May your mouth never close and your tuches never open.”
· And one last one—and this one is very serious. It comes from out of the Holocaust from a book called Min Hameytzar, “From Out of the Depths.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it surely expresses the anger that all human beings must have felt during those dark days, in those dark places: “I call down a curse from the Toch’cha, to strike upon Hitler, the bloodsucker. In the same way that you have stripped us of our lives, so may your skin be stripped from you with knives. Upon you and yours in your land, may there fall down many a burning brand. May your cities be destroyed and become a burnt heap and may not a single path remain that memory can keep.”
Who cannot feel the pain and the deserved anger that fills the heart of whomever he was that wrote this curse?
Let me repeat the question I began with: Blessings and curses: Are they real? Do they have any power—especially in this modern scientific world of ours? The answer is that they only have the power that we give them. Cursing, for example, certainly creates negative energies. And if allow that negativity to effect us, it just might.
How do we defend ourselves against such negativity? How do we live our lives so that we enjoy the blessings of life and avoid the curses? In order to answer this I must respond with a deep spiritual principle. When we live in a state of connectedness with each other and of oneness with Gd, the blessings of the world are showered upon us. That doesn’t mean that Gd will send us everything we ask for or that we won’t have any challenges in life. It means that Gd will send us what we need and any curses sent our way will have little or no effect.
But when we live in a state of duality, of unconnectedness, of being separate from Gd—of not seeing Gd in everything—then we give the things we don’t see Gd in…power over us. The hard challenges that life sends our way are not separate from Gd. That pain is meant to teach us something about ourselves and about life. If we can see Gd even in the pain, then it won’t be so painful. And if we can somehow get the message Gd is sending us, then there will be no more reason for the pain and it may go away.
How do we stay in a state of connectedness? The Torah tells us right in the beginning of today parsha: Im b’chukotai teylechu, “If you will walk in my ways” then blessings I will shower upon you. But if you reject Me, Gd says (Lev. 26:16): “I will do the same to you. I will bring upon you feelings of anxiety, along with depression and excitement, destroying your outlook and making your life seem hopeless.” This is the best definition of what a life of separateness, a life without Gd is like—“feelings of anxiety, depression and excitement, destroying your outlook and making your life seem hopeless.”
So should we give other blessings and curses? Everyone loves a blessing. When we bless someone that Gd should grant them health or prosperity or whatever, our blessing is a means to increase their connection with Gd. To the extent that we connect with Gd as we bless them, the blessing increases in its effectiveness. And in that spirit we bless Andy and Marisol that they’ll have nachat ruach, true happiness and joy from their new daughter Yael. Cursing, however, requires caution. It’s a desire to separate someone from Gd. And that’s something we should avoid doing.
But some curses have their function. In regard to Hitler and his ilk like Osama bin Ladin and Yassir Arafat, yimach shmam, “may their names be obliterated,” it’s certainly understandable. Cursing them is more like a prayer that there be some justice in the world …that evil not triumph over good forever…that there must be some retribution for those who hurt us—not only for our sakes, but for the sake of Gd’s name. This kind of cursing is a way to relieve our anger…a way for a helpless people to fight back with the only weapon they possessed—words...a way in which a people who lived in an insane world kept their sanity.
And so on this Shabbat of blessings and curses, it’s interesting to note some evangelists like Harold Camping are predicting the rapture at 5:00pm today—and all true Christians will be swept up to heaven and the rest of us will be cursed. Well nonetheless, I bless all of us—so we will not feel cursed but blessed—with a selection of some of the blessings of today’s Torah portion: May Gd give us peace. May we live our lives and lie down at night so that none will make us afraid. May not a sword—and to this I add, nor bomb—fall upon us. May Gd turn his attention to us and grant us prosperity. May Gd walk among us—close to us, enlightening us—keeping away any curses, and may we be a people to Him—always feeling connected to Him. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis