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Rabbi Avi Weiss

In this week’s portion, Bechukotai, we read the tochecha, the curse containing a series of punishments that will be meted out if the Jewish people do not follow the dictates of the Torah. This section actually follows a series of blessings promised to the Jews if they adhere to the Torah.

But it is strange because the length of the curses is longer than that of the blessings. Why are the blessings outnumbered by almost three to one? Several answers have been offered.

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Ibn Ezra suggests that while the blessings are spelled out in fewer sentences, they are actually more numerous as they, unlike the curses, are written in general categories. In this sense, they are far more encompassing.

Biur (Naftali Hertz Weisel) takes a different approach. The blessings, he argues, are more dominant as they come upon us all at once in their full measure. This is not the case with the curses. The Torah insists they will come about gradually as they are testimony of God’s reluctance to punish His people. Indeed, a quick review of the text indicates that the reproofs are arranged in four couplets, increasing in severity. They begin with sickness and then continue on with famine, siege and exile. Each of these couplets begins with the words “if you will not harken unto Me [God],” indicating how each step follows a further rejection of God’s Torah (Leviticus 26:14, 18, 23, 27).

Another thought comes to mind. Perhaps, in fact, the curses are longer because the Torah speaks in the language of people. If one does not feel well, he or she often delineates the specific hurt. The language used runs something like “my stomach hurts” or “my head aches” or “I have pain in my legs.” In contrast, when one feels well, one never says “my stomach is in perfect order” or “my head is functioning well” or “my legs are moving just perfectly today.” Rather, one very generally says “I’m feeling well.” In other words, we do not emphasize the good that we receive the way we acknowledge the struggles that we face.

For this reason, the Torah, reflecting the thinking of human beings, speaks at length of the curses. As human beings accentuate their suffering, so too does the Torah in great specificity delineate the curses. The blessings are written in brief because people speak of the positive of life in abbreviated terms.

Especially on the eve of the anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem, we should remember not only the difficult moments of life but also the blessings we too often take for granted.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.

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