I will be traveling across the country by train for the first time in three years to attend the bar Mitzvah of my nephew. I intend to post some updates – a travelogue – of my journey along the way. I will be travelling, after this event, to visit my mother who will not be attending, because of a serious heart condition. If you feel inspired to contribute a few dollars for my travelling expenses, I would greatly appreciate your contribution.
“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”
– Deuteronomy 11:26, JPS 1917 Tanach
“See, I set before you this day,” in other words, perceive that I present before you this very day, the significance of blessings and curses in your lives. According to Rabbeinu Bahya, the so-called, “mental eye” of the spiritually sensitive is able to see the effects of the blessings and curses, on an individual basis, in their own lives. Incidentally, the blessings originate with the Attribute of Mercy, whereas the curses are derived from the Attribute of Justice.
R. Bahya makes reference to the pasuk (verse), “I have seen great wisdom and knowledge” (Ecclesiastes 1:16). As a direct result of our being aware of the blessings and curses in life, we may obtain great knowledge, concerning the causal relationship between our thoughts, speech, & actions, and their consequences. This may lead towards wisdom, having to do with how H’Shem Elokim guides us – each and every person, according to hasgachah peratis (divine guidance), weaving a tapestry of events and consequences in our lives, dependent upon the nature of our conduct.
Additionally, consider the words of King David, who wrote, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, JPS); he was assured through H’Shem’s guidance and correction, that he would remain on the derech (path). H’Shem’s guidance, as represented by a staff (a shepherd’s crook) and His correction, as symbolized by a rod. This is akin to the understanding that blessings can be understood as signs that we are on the right path; and curses are a form of chastisement meant to correct us, whenever we go astray.
“If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” – Leviticus 26:3-4, JPS 1917 Tanach
“Do His will as if it were thy will. Nullify thy will before His will, that He may nullify the will of others before thy will.” – Pirkei Avos 2:4, traditional text
The parashas begins with a conditional set of blessings, dependent upon the observance of the commandments. By studying, contemplating, and resolving to bring these commandments into our daily lives, we will also be bestowed with the blessings of H’Shem. The “L-RD will give that which is good;” and our lives will be fruitful (Psalm 85:13, JPS 1917 Tanach).
The observance of the commandments is meant to lead us into a state of kedusha (holiness), so that our very lives may be sanctified through their performance. To serve Him (avodah) is the task of the “inner person,” wherein the battle is fought between the yetzer tov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). We need to align ourselves with G-d’s will.
“The reward for a mitzvah (good deed) is another mitzvah” (Pirkei Avos 4:2). I.e., more opportunities to do good, will be given to us as we continue to observe the mitzvot (good deeds). These opportunities may require the use of our discernment, in tandem with the prevailing directives of our conscience. Through the negation of our will, which is often contrary to G-d’s will, we may mature according to His guidance in our lives.
The blessings bestowed upon us in Olam HaZeh (This World), as per the “material goods” that we receive – these material blessings that we receive do not exceed those of Olam HaBa (the World-to-Come). In lieu of being directly connected to the land of Israel, wherein the rain, crops of the field, flocks and herds were in abundance when Israel followed the commandments, we are at even more of a disadvantage to recognize these blessings as being from Above. For we are not dependent upon rain or sunlight, because most of our shopping is from the shelves of supermarkets and health food stores.
Moreover, consider that when we disregard the source of the abundance of goods provided for us, namely the Heavens Above, then we are disconnecting ourselves from G-d, and His future promises. This was evidenced by Torah, and the subsequent loss of blessings received in Israel, because they forgot the G-d who made them, years later, after entering Eretz Yisrael (Deuteronomy 32:18). For, as they prospered, they began to think that everything was a result of their own efforts. We have the opportunity today and every day to continue learning from the mistakes of our ancestors. The ultimate blessings as prescribed in prophecy are still extant for Israel as a nation.
Especially when we consider our mitzvoth, avodah, and Yiddishkeit, that may all be flourishing, we can easily overlook areas of our lives, where we fall short of the standard, prescribed for the pious. That is to say, that every area of our life should represent our values. Inasmuch that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were blessed “in everything, through everything, and with everything,” this implies according to the Talmud that in this life they had already received a taste of Olam Haba (the-World-to-Come; Bavra Batra 16b-17a). Thus, they were blessed with heavenly as well as earthly blessings; perhaps, their blessings rested upon their character, inasmuch that the Talmud also asserts that the yetzer hara (evil inclination held no sway over them (ibid.). If so, then all areas of their lives may have been blessed because there was no corruption to be found lurking about in the corners of their personal lives.
Yet, we are not on the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in terms of our challenges in the face of adversity from the yetzer hara (evil inclination). Thus, the TANYA recommends that we need to “turn away from evil” in all areas of our lives, in order to receive the full blessings due to our positive endeavors. In other words, we have the opportunity to bring more blessings into our lives, beyond those we receive from “doing good,” if we sweep out the dust, so to speak, from the places in our lives that need improvement, the faults, and minor sins that have been neglected. These are the aveiros that most people trample upon, figuratively speaking, because they seem trivial in their eyes. If we search our hearts, we may find that we are also guilty of “trampling upon” these sins. Therefore, let us search our minds and heart, and root out the behaviors that prevent us from receiving the full blessings H’Shem would like to grant to us.
note: based on Likutei Amarim, middle of chapter 30
(Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d, who has granted us life, sustained us, and brought us to this season).
The concept of enacting a tikkun (rectification) through the conscious eating of a variety of fruits on this day is exemplified within the teachings found in the Pri Etz Hadar – Tree of the Goodly Fruit – that serves as a type of manual for Tu b’Shevat. To eat with intention (kavannah), means to acknowledge the spiritual significance of the day, as well as the symbolism from different types of fruits. Especially important are the seven species from Israel mentioned in Torah:
“A land of wheat and barley, and [grape] vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey. – Deuteronomy 8:8, JPS 1917 Tanach
Also included as traditional favorites for Tu b’Shevat are the following:
carob chips, dried apples, dried pears, raisins, grapes, and wine, if having a Tu b’Shevat fruit seder.
The shehacol is the “catch-all blessing,” made before partaking of food. Although, the blessing specifically applies to certain foods such as eggs, cheese, and milk that would not fall under other categories, like prei ha’adamah (fruit of the earth) and prei ha’etz (fruit of the tree). So, if there is an understanding that by default, the shehacol blessing (shehacol nihiyeh b’dvarot – who creates all things through His word) seemingly covers all foods, then why are there so many particulars?
By analogy, the question may be asked, that if blue is blue, why are there so many shades of blue, or any other color? The rich diversity of G-d’s creation, whether His beautiful artwork, a tapestry in the sky, or a canvas at sunset, is such because of its inclusion of so many diverse elements that blend in harmony with His creation, and abide in accordance with His will. To ignore the various shades of the color spectrum, or fail to differentiate between so many types of foods is to diminish the grandeur of G-d’s creation. These are only my thoughts and not a halachic answer.
Aside from any discussion on the proper blessing to make before partaking of food, consider the following: proper awe, reverence, and respect towards the Creator Who provided the food. There is a story of a peasant who would like to thank the baker for the bread he ate. Upon thanking the baker, the baker said not to thank him, thank the miller who ground the wheat. The miller said to thank the farmer who harvested the wheat. The farmer said thank the earth. The earth said to thank the rain that replenished the earth. The rain said to thank the clouds that made the rain. The clouds said to thank the sun, because, without sunshine, the wheat could not grow. The sun said to thank G-d who made all celestial beings. And so that is one way to understand why we praise G-d with blessings over food and show gratitude towards Him for the food on our table.
In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The Moabites had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).
The three attempts of the prophet, Balaam to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, Balaam and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d, even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed’” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).
Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). Not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead. An example to be remembered, of how a blessing may be transformed into a curse through H’Shem’s Providence.
On Shabbos Mevarchim for Rosh Chodesh Adar 5781, this past Shabbat, I reflected on the blessing for the new month, traditionally recited on the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh:
I noticed how this Adar will bring the globe, as well as, Jewish communities around the world full circle; inasmuch, that it will have been about a year since the proliferation of the coronavirus. May H’Shem have mercy on us; may He bless our lives, family, friends, and communities. May He preserve us during the days that will follow. Amein.
For myself, I have been sheltering in place, virtually twenty four – seven. I have much opportunity for reflection, writing, and kavanah (intention). Yet, the days are somewhat bittersweet, since my thoughts turn pensive, akin to the required seriousness necessary for the sake of heshbon hanefesh (literally, an accounting of the soul). To examine one’s conscience in this manner, will only lead to joy down the road, after rooting out unhealthy maladaptive behaviors, negative character traits, and making an effort to do better. Additionally, I count the hours of each and every day, until evening, when I hope to have fulfilled the day’s tasks, that are expected of me from Above. May we all be productive in divinely inspired ways. Amein,
Focusing on what is essential, as the restrictions let up, I wonder how often will newly found essentials continue to be important in my life, and the lives of others down the road. To revert back to former ways would only prove to be detrimental, if what has been learned at this slowed down pace of life, simply gives sway to momentum, approaching the previous standards of the often frenetic pace of society. Yet, positive societal change should be the result of individuals focusing on retaining the lessons learned during these challenging times. May we all continue to grow in our understanding of what is important in life. Amein.
The Hebrew month of Adar is traditionally associated with joy (Taanis 29a).
May our joys in life increase, despite the challenges ahead. Amein.