reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
This sidra, the first in our book to be largely composed of laws and religious precepts, begins with a passage dealing with a subject of reward and punishment:
“See, I have set before you this day a blessing and a curse”
A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day:
And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other Gods, which ye have not known. (11:26-28)
This passage which promises blessing to the obedient and threatens the disobedient with a curse postulates, too, the fundamental Jewish principle of freewill. The Midrash understands the opening words of our text as implying this:
“Behold I have set … blessing and a curse …” Said R. Eliezer: As soon as the Almighty uttered these words at Sinai, “out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good” ( Lamentations 3:38 ); but evil overtakes those who commit evil and good those do good.
Many commentators have been puzzled by the fact that the Hebrew word for evil in the text from Lamentations occurs in the plural from (ra’ot, meaning “evils”) whereas the word for good (tovah) is in the singular. Here is the explanation of the Ha’amek Davar:
The Almighty, in his abounding grace, provides His creators with one single good prior of the deed, as an incentive to good works. In view of this, only one good proceeds from the most High, whereas retribution and sufferings do not proceed from Him, but overtake man in direct relationship to his deeds his sinful acts.
We shall revert to the foregoing idea later. Meanwhile we shall deal with another apparent anomaly, this time in the opening text. The anomaly is only apparent in the Hebrew, since the English translation does not reflect the discrepancy. The passage states: “… a blessing, if (asher) ye obey …”; ” a curse if (im) ye will not obey.” The usual reading would have been the conditional im in both cases. A more faithful English rendering would be: “A blessing that ye obey … a curse if ye will not obey.” But what is the point of this variation? Malbim the great 19th century Jewish commentator who made a study of Biblical Hebrew semantics gives the following explanation:
” A blessing that ye obey,” implying then that the very obedience to the Divine commandments constitutes the blessing. Do not imagine that there is any this-worldly reward outside the good deed itself. It is not like the case of the master who rewards his servant for loyalty and punishes for disobedience, where the servant’s due is dependent on the master’s whim and is not inherent in the action itself. The parallel is to the doctor who assures his patient that he will be well, as long as he adheres to the regimen he prescribes, and that otherwise he will die. The consequences are here inherent in the deed itself.
The idea propounded by Malbim echoes the rabbinic dictum that the reward of a mitzvah virtue is its own reward. But this does not explain why the Torah changes its attitude in respect of sinful deeds and uses the conditional im. Surely it is equally true to state that sin brings its own punishment the reward of a transgression is transgression! Bahya goes further than Malbim and explains the different implications of asher and im in our context:
Im is an expression of doubt which was therefore inappropriate in connection with obedience to the Torah, but quite appropriate in the context of punishment. The text therefore uses asher an expression of certainty with reference to obedience.
In other wards, man is merely confronted by two possibilities. He is exhorted to prefer the first course (cf.: Deut. 30:19: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life”). Since, however, these two alternatives are in our passage set forth in subordinate clauses of condition and are followed by the main clauses, it is the latter which should provide the clue to interpreting the variation in phraseology. Rashi with his characteristic brevity illuminates the obscurity in two Hebrew words:
“The blessing that ye obey” on account of that.
What is the point of Rashi’s comment? To understand it we must invoke the Talmud which explains the difference in implication between al menat “on account of that” and im “if.” Al menat implies retroactive force. “I shall pay you if you perform a certain task” constitutes an obligation to pay when the work is completed on performance.” I shall pay you on account of the work you perform for me” implies a retroactive obligation to pay even before the performance.
Let us now apply this distinction to rash’s comment: “on account of” as applied to the text: “The blessing that ye obey.” The blessing is given to man on account, even before he has proved himself deserving by obedience to the Divine law. The world is founded on Divine grace. At the end of creation before man came into being it is stated: “And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good”. This bountiful world was granted to man for him to enjoy and serve his Master on condition that he would be obedient to the wishes of its creator, whereas the curse comes only afterwards, in the event of man’s subsequent disobedience. This is the reason for the divergence of phrasing. The world is not originally evil and full of misfortune to be redeemed by man’s own good works. On the contrary: How manifold are thy works O Lord, all of them hast thou made in wisdom” (Psalm 104:24). All the ugliness and misfortune are consequences of the evil committed by man:” and the curse if ye will not obey”. The same Psalm refers to this:” Let the sins be consumed out of the earth and the wicked will be no more, bless thou the Lord O my soul”. Once human evil has been eradicated the pristine purity of divine creation will be restored when everything was “made in wisdom” and the state of blessing comes back into its own: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, Praise ye the Lord.”
Now we may appreciate the observation of the Ha’amek Davar cited at the beginning. “Out of the mouth of the Lord proceedeth not evil(s) and good, since man himself is responsible for the evils. Good is in the singular however, since there is one supreme good which proceeds from God and that is the good granted to mankind beforehand, in anticipation of its obedience.