The real blessing

The Torah lists blessings, but what is good about being so blessed?

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Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The blessings described in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo sound truly amazing. The appeal of a world of plenty, awash with abundancies and free of fear, must be strong to the average person. The Jewish people, tasked with following the Torah and its commandments, are focused on constant improvement and increase in knowledge of the Creator. If taken literally, the blessings could be construed as a potential stumbling block, as indulgence would be the order of the day. What, then, are the benefits to be accrued from these blessings?

The beginning of the section sets up the prerequisites for receiving the blessings (Devarim 28:1-2):

“And it will be if you obey the Lord, your God, to observe to fulfill all His commandments which I command you this day, the Lord, your God, will place you supreme above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings will come upon you and cleave to you, if you obey the Lord, your God”

What are these blessings? The Torah continues (ibid 3-6):
“(3) You shall be blessed in the city, and you shall be blessed in the field. (4) Blessed will be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your soil, the fruit of your livestock, the offspring of your cattle, and the flocks of your sheep. (5) Blessed will be your basket and your kneading bowl. (6) You shall be blessed when you come, and you shall be blessed when you depart.”

A cursory glance at the verses would seem to indicate blessing which cover all major facets of a person’s life. However, a closer look reveals some reasonable questions. What is the nature of the blessing of coming and going? What is the difference between city and field? Once we know one will be blessed with many children, much produce, and plentiful cattle, what is the blessing about the baskets adding? And, quite frankly, what is this blessing of baskets and kneading bowls???

The Midrash offers an interesting debate concerning the first blessing. According to one opinion, the idea of city and field refers to the performance of commandments and the subsequent rewards one will receive. When a Jew is in the city, he sees the possibility of performing commandments such as challah, sukkah and Shabbat. When he is in the fields, opportunities proliferate for leket, shicha and pe’ah. The second opinion is referring to the relationship between the fields and the cities. One will be blessed in the city based on what he receives from the fields, since there will be an abundance of produce. 

Regarding the first opinion, what exactly are these blessings? We already know the Jewish people get rewarded in this world for their adherence to the commandments. In terms of the second opinion, it does not appear there is any distinct blessing being received by those in the city. What do we learn about the nature of the relationship between field and city?

When the Jewish people as a whole are united in their adherence to Torah and its commandments, we know there will be some type of resulting Divine Providence. What the first opinion is pointing out concerns a specific example of this unique level of the Jewish people. When someone enters a city, he sees building and roads. When he comes to a field, he sees trees and plants. For the Jew who is tied to the Torah, he sees opportunities. He sees the abstract world of Jewish Law superimposed on his surroundings. He exists in sync with the system of Torah, and that is deserving of a reward. The second opinion stresses a different idea. When we think of the Divine Providence that will be afforded the Jewish people, it is tempting to view it a life defined by the miraculous. Wherever one turns, the laws of nature would be altered. It is possible that this opinion is attempting to dissuade us of this notion. One will benefit from the Divine Providence, and there will be an increase in food production. However, being in a city means benefiting from the blessing without needing the presence of the miraculous. The idea of the blessing will be a benefit without the reliance on an overt miracle.

The next blessing deals with an abundance of children and food, the “natural” inclination of what the results of Divine Providence would be. Yet the Torah adds a strange blessing about baskets and bowls. Many of the commentators point to the successful straining of wine and kneading dough (done in the above baskets and bowls).  How do these explanations assist us in understanding this blessing?
Humans interact with the surrounding world in both a passive and active manner. Passivity in this context refers to the workings of the laws of nature independent of man’s involvement. While it is true man must plant the seeds, the process of growth takes place on its own. Active refers to man’s more forceful engagement. We are imbued with ambition and creativity, and we apply it to becoming more productive. We take raw materials, refine them, and produce what in our eyes is a “better” product. The paradigm examples are wine and bread, products of a process requiring the investment of man. It is not healthy when a person’s ambitions are in a state of frustration. The Divine Providence would assist in the overall process of production. What we then see is both an increase in the passive and active realms of man’s relationship with the world.
We are left with the final blessing, for coming and departing. Many of the interpretations follow the line of reasoning of further benefits coming from the land. Rashi, citing a Midrash, goes in a different direction:

“May your departure from the world be as free of sin as was your entry into the world.”

While this sounds quite enthralling, one must wonder what exactly this blessing is offering us. The aim to be “free of sin” is an impossible one to achieve. We are human beings, and struggle is a part of our normal existence. Will the world of blessings be one where the human condition changes entirely?

The idea of coming into this world “free of sin” may not be referring to when one is born. Rather, there is a point in a person’s development where he is ready to engage with the world and make use of his freewill. In this context, the idea of following the word of God, versus defying His will, becomes a reality. This is the state of being “free of sin”. In engaging with the world, many potential obstacles become apparent, and the temptation of leaving the correct path becomes stronger. The fight to not give in to one’s impetuous desires when faced with enticements becomes even harder to overcome. The blessing, then, could be God creating an easier path for the person. The opportunities for sin might be reduced, and the temptations that present in the world be reduced. Such a blessing would be extremely fortuitous.

The above approaches point to the true benefit of the blessings. The “increase” in Divine Providence should not be understood as a chance to enjoy the physical world in a whole new manner. We would not be functioning in our ideal state if all we did was indulge. The blessings should be viewed as opportunities. When we are in line with God’s will, we gain even more chances to better ourselves. The true blessing is when the world around us works in synchronicity with our desire to know God. That would be truly amazing.