By Daniel Oppenheimer
This parasha contains both blessings for observance of the mitzvot and curses for failing to observe them. The curses themselves are disturbing, but what is perhaps more disturbing is the dictatorial approach taken by God. The curses begin, significantly, “But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments.” Obedience is to those commandments as a package. What the commandments are is almost irrelevant. God commands, we obey – or else, supernatural punishment follows.
However, we do not have to accept this “vengeful Old Testament God”, which is how passages like this can appear if read outside our tradition. While the (written) Torah is certainly our foundational text, we always read it through and with the Oral Torah, the traditions of the Rabbis.
And a lengthy Talmudic passage from tractate Shabbat subtly but completely changes the philosophy behind it. The Talmud links various verses in the curses to the violation of specific mitzvot. One example is the mitzvah of challah – not plaited loaves made with egg – but rather the commandment to separate out a portion of the dough when baking to give to the kohanim, a form of tithing. There is a verse in the curses that states “I will inflict on you misery (behala)” The Talmudic text says “Because of the neglect of challah there is no blessing in what is stored, and a curse is sent upon prices ….for the verse says “I will inflict on you behala”, but instead of behala, read be-challah, with challah”.
Superficially this seems odd and rather pointless. Why use a rather forced pun to try and shoehorn a specific mitzvah into the Biblical text? In actual fact the whole approach of the Biblical text is being significantly changed by the Rabbis. The text is being re-read so that its message is no longer obedience to mitzvot regardless of what they are, but rather, that specific commandments have specific purposes and significance, and violating them will have real world consequences. Challah is not being chosen at random. Challah creates a social structure: people sharing their resources with others in society – in this case the kohanim – as part of a network of mutual obligations and services. It promotes generosity, mutual aid and interconnection. So conversely, if people do not buy into systems like this, the result will indeed be societal breakdown – “no blessing on what is stored and a curse is sent upon prices”.
The message of the curses has completely changed now. Instead of their being a series of supernatural punishments for not obeying the commands of an authoritarian God, they become a warning about what will happen if we do not have regard for others and for the good of our society as a whole.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founding member of its Assif minyan