August 9, 2007
Blessing a Curse
Parshat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
I just bid farewell to the 40 Birthright participants I helped connect with Israel and Judaism over 10 amazing and exhausting days. Somewhere between my passion for this country, my commitment to be of counsel and support to everyone, an overdose of hummus and a profound lack of sleep, I overexerted myself profoundly.
Then they left, and it was my turn to be in Israel: friends, family, beach, clubs, cafes, shopping, concerts, articles. Instead of taking a few days down to recover, I just kept going.
Now my throat hurts.
How did I not see this coming?
Rabbis are supposed to be holier than to feel sorry for themselves, of course. But then, they (like all do-gooders) should also be rewarded with God's blessings for their righteousness. I just gave my heart and soul to these people, to this religion, to this country; I blessed every carb I ate and covered my shoulders at the Kotel (even though I was shvtizing like mad). And this is my recompense?
In truth, I'm more pissed at myself than at God; like I said, I didn't see the obvious signs of a body in distress.
There is a distinction of great import in those words: lirot (to see something), which is very different from lehistakel (to look at something). It is a matter of presence: attention to what is; seeing is the experience of relationship with, rather than observance of. It is this relationship that both my cursed sore throat and this week's parsha address.
Re'eh begins with this word: "See ... I place before you today a blessing and a curse." Both the positive and the apparent negative are sourced in the Divine, to be recognized and recited by the people. This translates to my ailing gullet: Here I am blessed by being in my favorite place on earth, along with the blight of a flu bug I picked up. Correspondent with the text, I am to give thanks for the former, but also kvetch loudly about the latter; it is the will of my Creator that I graciously receive and acknowledge the nasty ailment He has allowed to come upon me.
"And it shall come to pass, when ... God has brought you into the land ... you shall declare the blessing ... and the curse...." Wonderful.
This instruction is harder to swallow than Acamol (jumbo-sized Israeli Tylenol). How am I supposed to accept that the Source of all goodness is not only the origin but also the encouragement of something so seemingly unpleasant? I have enough trouble dealing with blessings; taking time to express -- let alone be present to -- gratitude for the billions of things granted to me every moment of every day is hard work. Usually I'm too preoccupied with thoughts about what's missing to pray thanks for what I've got. Now I learn I'm supposed to sanctify that stuff as well?
A rabbi with a voice scratchier than Demi Moore's is not quite the spiritual vision I had for myself. Nor does it correspond with my ideas about the Creator, whom I have counted on to release me from adversity, not inspire it.
The God I've related to is about sunsets and unconditional love and limonana (the Israeli beverage of lemonade blended with fresh mint and ice), which is presently heaven for my throat. At risk of digressing, I've drank several since I arrived, but this is by far the best one; because of my pain, the relief from it is that much more experientially pleasurable. Which is the truth of it all, I reckon: Often the gift of a curse evokes the experience of a blessing that would otherwise be taken for granted.
Blatant providence from God is so apparent that it's difficult to really see it, though we're looking at it always. The curses that God grants us are indeed an opportunity to partake far more deeply and actively in the experience of Him. They are gifts of discovery through adversity of the concealed beauty in all things. Truly, these alleged misfortunes are the real pleasures of our lives: The suspense is what makes the mystery enthralling, the slow climb to the top of the roller coaster is what makes the drop exhilarating, the exhaustion is what makes the good sleep delightful. The hiding makes the seeking entertaining, the absence from someone is what makes the reunion moving, and feeling bad makes feeling good so blessed.
God created light for us so that we can create light ourselves; in His image, we have the free will to choose in which capacity we will do so. We can begin at the end of His process: see the light (or the limonana, or even the sore throat) for what it is and affirm that it is good. Or we can begin at the beginning: in the darkness, from out of which the light is called, then seen, and only then experienced as the miracle.
I see that my sore throat is indeed a blessing, for it is no worse than what it is: a minor healing crisis amid the billions of cells that God helps lovingly maintain in perfect sustained balance. And even more fortunately: a curse, a concealed source of Divine love revealing itself through the miracles of lemons and ice and straws and lips and relief and sleep and dreams and treasured moments in the ocean and sunlight ... and darkness.
Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.