When the first fruits of the harvest arrive, the Israelite farmer is to take the first of each fruit, put them in a basket, and make a pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem some time during the festival of Shavuot. The farmer is to tell the priest that he is affirming to God that he has come to into the Promised Land. The priest is to take the basket and place it before the altar at the Temple. The farmer is then to offer the following declaration:
A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: And when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression: And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. [Deuteronomy 26: 5-10].This is an exercise in gratitude for good fortune. When we come into good fortune, we should be grateful to God for blessing us with good fortune. This is a good example of a type of mitzvah called zachor, or remembrance. I have mentioned previously that mitzvot are sometimes divided into ethical practices, remembrances, and esoteric practices. Remembrances help an adherent feel that they exist within a thread in the tapestry of history, and the Sacred History of Judaism is the story of the Exodus. The "Syrian ready to perish" has been interpreted to be either Abraham or Jacob, both of whom sojourned in Egypt during times of economic distress.
It is important to remind my readers that Deuteronomy is an oration given by Moses on the far bank of the Jordan in the land of Moab, given to people who had been wandering in the desert for forty years. A fruit was a rare delicacy to these people. That they would someday gather a whole basket of fruits and offer them up as a sacrifice hints at much bounty to come. The honey promised is fig or date honey, not bee honey. The Talmud tells of Rami bar Ezekiel visiting Bnei Brak, and seeing goats grazing under fig trees, with fig honey dripping on the grass as the lactating goats dripped milk on the grass, so that milk and honey flowed onto the ground. [Ketuvot 111b].
Moses commands the Israelites to make the law public by writing it out on large stones plastered with lime. Then God commands them to build an altar of stone, and "thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them". [Deuteronomy 27: 5].
Moses lists a bunch of specific curses for certain behaviors, and after each curse is mentioned, the whole congregation of Israel repeats "Amen". What are these behaviors?
- Showing disrespect for one's father and mother
- Moving one's neighbor's boundary marker
- Misdirecting the blind
- Perverting justice for the foreigner, the widow and the orphan
- Having sex with the wife of one's father
- Having sex with an animal
- Having sex with a sister or half-sister
- Having sex with one's mother-in-law
- Striking down one's neighbor in secret
- Taking a bribe to put an innocent man to death
- Not upholding and keeping the entire Torah (literally "this law")
The rabbis interpreted the curse against misdirecting the blind as a curse against leading astray anyone who lacks wisdom. It is interesting that four of the twelve curses are sexual in nature, but none directly address homosexuality (meaning that incest and bestiality were much more stringent taboos than homosexuality). Notice that justice for foreigners in your land is paramount. Righteous people treat immigrants and aliens with proper justice.
The blessings and curses that follow lay out the simplest kind of theology. If you do right, God will reward you, and if you do ill, God will punish you. The rest of the passage lists the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience. But the history of the Jewish people has taught us that we suffer even when we have done no wrong, and that evil people can prosper without retribution in this lifetime. So the literal interpretation of what is said in this passage cannot be the whole story. Maimonides understood this, and understood that if we perform mitzvot only to stave off an angry God, then we are not acting from virtuous motives.
My readers understand that this litany of blessings and curses, if literally interpreted, depicts a Deity scarcely worthy of devotion. Each of us has a friend whom we have befriended solely because being that person's friend is only slightly less terrifying than being that person's enemy. That's a pretty lame reason to engage in worship, let alone friendship.
I find that there is a back-and-forth going on. There are things that humans can do that can ruin lives. Heroin addiction usually doesn't end well. There are things that humans can do that can ruin the lives of innocents. There is plenty of collateral damage in a war, and children living near pollution sites get leukemia, even when they didn't do the polluting. There are things that citizens can do that ruin the nation. The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. [Yoma 9b]. The Talmud explains that Solomon's Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, but that the sin of sinat chinam was worse than the other three sins put together.
In the USA, we are going through a particularly contentious Presidential election campaign, and sinat chinam is everywhere. Because of sinat chinam, the credit rating of the USA has fallen for the first time ever. Congress spends more time bickering than solving problems. Outrageous lies and distortions are uttered about the candidates, and uttered by the candidates and their running mates. Celebrities are going on television and claiming that if the wrong candidate gets elected, there will be a thousand years of darkness.
Jews are not very apocalyptic in general, but during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, we were very apocalyptic. An apocalyptic literature spread at that time, and influenced Christian literature as well. Today, we are hearing apocalyptic rhetoric about this election, about the State of Israel, and about climate change. The curses in this passage seem apocalyptic in nature, describing an absolute breakdown of civilization and a reversion to utter barbarism and savagery.
The description of the curses in this Torah portion can be interpreted as what happens when a nation lives its life out of balance, when it fail to pursue justice, to live by the rule of law, to respect the dignity and integrity of all its citizens.
A crude form of idolatry practiced even among people of the Abrahamic faiths is to pretend that there is a bearded man in the sky who is perpetually angry at us for not obeying an irrational set of rules, whom we have to placate or be destroyed. This is a particularly pernicious form of idolatry, but a crude reading of this passage seems to support this. Except that the very first thing that gets cursed is idolatry. This is crucial to understanding the passage at a deeper level.
If you tell your average educated person that if they don't obey every arbitrary rule in the book, the bearded man in the sky will smite them, they will probably roll their eyes and think you are a nut. But if you tell them that injustice breeds more injustice, and that a society that rewards evil and punishes good will have a bad outcome, this seems more reasonable. If you tell a Star Wars fan that they have to harmonize with the Force, and not indulge in the Dark Side, they will understand you. If you tell a New Ager that they cannot oppose the Tao, but rather flow with it, that makes sense to them. If you abjure people not to pervert nature, but to take a survey of nature, and imitate nature's forms and harmonies, you might get a positive response.
The metaphor of God as King was effective to the Ancient Semitic imagination, but in a world where kings are largely obsolete, we need new ways to connect to the Grand Architect of the Universe. Ancient kings had absolute power over life and death, and were supposed to control the harvest, and bestow bounty and prosperity upon their lands. Anything other than absolute submission to the king was met with agonizing torture and death. In that sense, the Organizing Principle has a way of emerging into the world as we know it, and we would do well to observe these ways and imitate them. When we defy the way that nature organizes herself, we run into conflict with nature and the universe, and this often ends badly.
We need a new way to approach the Unifying Concept, the First Principle, the Prime Mover, the Force, the Tao, the Course in Which the Nations Run according to Giambattista Vico, or the cyclical 'asabiyyah of Ibn Khaldūn, the co-domain of consciousness, the cumulative epitome of states of awareness. To this end, we have a personal responsibility as individuals to seek virtue and eschew vice, and a civic and national responsibility to seek justice, uphold the weakest elements of society, and embrace the stranger, and a global responsibility to achieve harmony among all the peoples of the world.
Blessings come from living in harmony, not always, but usually. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. Curses come from living out of balance, not always, but usually. As my mother used to tell me: "Don't go looking for disappointments in life. You'll find them anyway, but you'll find more of them if you look for them. Instead, look for joys, some of which you will not find unless you seek them out."