Thursday, September 22, 2011

Blessing and Curses: if only it were that easy! / Nitzavim

My dear friend David lives in Vermont. His partner Yuval raises bees there. Yuval’s bees produce honey unlike any I’ve eaten -- the flavor is most definitely a taste of heaven. Last spring, David gave me a jar of Yuval’s honey. I saved it until our son Danny married Leora. There is a tradition that newlyweds put honey, rather than salt, on their challah each shabbat during their first year of marriage. I wanted Leora and Danny to taste Yuval’s honey on shabbat as they entered married life together -- may it always be sweet. Alas, the jar was empty before many shabbatot had passed, so if Yuval is reading this drash, maybe he’ll send another jar to Maryland? We wouldn’t say no.

Bees are fascinating creatures. Yuval took me on a tour of the hives in his backyard when I was visiting a year ago. One bee lodged itself in my hair. Alarm bells went off in my head. I wanted it out immediately. This tiny, impressively industrious, and amazingly prolific creature was a dangerous threat. (No, I’m not allergic to bees, but who wants to be stung?) What had seemed a blessing a moment ago now seemed like a curse.

Yuval, like all beekeepers, has learned how to work around bees. He is skilled in extracting the sweet honey without being stung in the bargain. It’s a real trick to separate the sweet from the sting, the blessing from the curse.
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and the keep God’s commandments, laws, and rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about the enter and possess… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and earth, blessing and curse. Choose life -- if you and your offspring would live -- by loving the Lord your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19-20)
First, Torah is saying we have free will and we have choices. So far I’m on board. Second, Torah is saying that not all choices are equal because some lead to blessing and some lead to curse. Okay, I’m still onboard, though with the caveat that fortune and misfortune can happen despite our choices because it’s a big, complicated universe. Third, Torah is saying that adherence to God’s “commandments, laws, and rules” will assure a good life. Is there a clear cut set of rules to follow to assure an avalanche of blessing and protection from all curses? We need not look far to discern the answer to this question: obviously not.

Let’s return a moment to the bees. They live in what for animals is a sophisticated society and they exhibit complex interactive behavior that amazes even biologists. Yet their decisions to extract pollen from flowers, transfer it to other flowers, impregnate the queen bee, and produce honey are not conscious free will choices. It’s instinct. They sting in response to perceived threat. In none of these do the bees make what we would consider a free will moral choice. They cannot choose between blessing and curse.

But sometimes, neither can we. We don’t always know which path to take in life. Should I accept a certain job offer? Should I stay in a certain relationship? Should I move to a new community? Should I respond to something someone said that rubs me wrong? How should I allocate my time, energy, and skills? How should I invest my resources? Should I have a certain surgery or medical treatment? Sure, I want to choose blessing and avoid curse, but it’s rarely as simple as Torah seems to suggest.

The bees know what to do. They act on instinct. They live in hives where the name of the game is the survival of the queen, not the individual bee. We, however, are calculating a dozen factors in the big decisions we make and sometimes losing sleep over what the outcome will be. How do we know if we’re choosing blessing or curse? Is there anyone who hasn’t been there?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could wind the tape forward and peek into the future to see the outcome of our decisions? But we cannot know the future -- even God cannot know the future -- because it does not yet exist. If God knew what we would choose, we would not have free choice. So God offers us the best choice, we choose, and then we wait to learn the outcome.

The best we can do is to make a decision with eyes open, good intentions, and full integrity. If we have done that, and it doesn’t turn out well, it is not God cursing us. It is the reality of living in an unpredictable world of probabilities, not assurances. If things don’t work out well, we still have choices to make, and with each choice God stands ready to show us the best option. All we can do is our best. In the end, that’s good enough because doing our best -- and knowing we did -- is a genuine blessing.

So Yuval, how about blessing us with another jar of your honey?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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