26 Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you shall hearken unto the commandments of the L-rd your G-d, which I command you this day; 28 and the curse, if you shall not hearken unto the commandments of the L-rd your G-d, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. (Devarim 11:26-8)
What is a blessing, and what is a curse?
The word beracha has the connotation of “expansion”. Despite the fact that a beracha is a way of expressing gratitude to G-d for what He has given us, we don’t use the Hebrew word for “thanks” (hoda’ah) anywhere in the blessing. When we make a beracha on some item of enjoyment, we use the language of blessing, to indicate that our interaction with the goodness of G-d’s world causes an expansion in the awareness of Him. Thus, a shiny, red apple has the potential to be more than a mundane pleasure; it can be an opportunity to increase our G-d-consciousness; berachot, then, are a meditative device to enable us to reach this consciousness.
The Seforno on our verse states that “blessing” refers to a level of abundance, endowment and success that goes well beyond what could be expected–a magnification of the good–whereas “curse” refers to destruction, a ruinous state that also goes well beyond expectation. G-d’s promise of reward and punishment for mitzvah observance or lack thereof is not measure for measure, not success or failure. This teaches us that, for the religious individual, there is no middle ground, no status quo. It’s either blessing or curse.
Parallel to this idea is the notion, put foward by Rabbi Bachye Ibn Piquda, the author of one of the oldest mussar tomes, Chovot HaLevavot (Duties of the Heart). He categorizes all areas of human endeavor into two possibilities: mitzvot and aveirot (transgressions). Note that he is not referring to the technical mitzvot of the Torah, but rather all other, non-ritual activity that people engage in in order to sustain themselves, such as eating, working, exercising, creating, and experiencing. Whether these activities are mitzvot or aveirot depends upon the element of l’shem shamayim—the extent to which you are doing them, “for the sake of Heaven”. All things that people do can serve as aids to their observance of the Torah if their intention is directed that way. If their intention is to facilitate their connection to G-d, and to amplify their service of G-d, then the activity is a “mitzvah”; if not—if the intention is simply to benefit oneself—then the activity is an aveirah, a sin. It follows then that a person who does these “mitzvot” is a “tzaddik” (righteous), whereas a person who does these “aveirot” is a “rasha” (evil) (Sha’ar Avodat Elokim, chapter 4). (See Ohr Gedaliahu, Parshat Re’eh,1)
This idea is very intimidating, because it brings the potential level of Divine scrutiny much closer than we would like. No one can hide behind their appearance any longer, once we begin to screen for l’shem shamayim. You can look or act as holy as you’d like, or as casual as you’d like.
On the other hand, this idea is very encouraging, because it means that each of us has many more opportunities to stay spiritually connected than we realize, and well beyond the borders of what we tend to label “religious” activity. Without deeper consideration, we might consider our technical involvement with prayer as the “holy” part of our lives, whereas the office, the kitchen, the gym, the art studio, and the concert hall are relegated to the “other” zone, a mundane world that does not necessarily have meaning. The problem with this is that it leaves us with a spiritual life that is compartmentalized, and that is antithetical to our religion. Asceticism may be a means of facilitating our spiritual growth along the way, and ensuring that we do not become addicted to the transient, corporeal aspects of this world. But the ultimate aim of Torah is kedushah–holiness–where all of the elements of human involvement are brought under the umbrella of divine service and sanctified.
A happier, well-rounded person of sound mind and sound body is a stronger vessel for holiness, and more likely to exert him or herself in the performance of mitzvot. Depending upon the person, getting fit with divine joy may involve sports, a good laugh, connection time with the family, or a water slide. If these things are done for the sake of Heaven, to create a happier servant of G-d, then they are mitzvah activities, and the person involved has integrated the elements of his or her life properly. Honesty with yourself will enable you to determine what you truly do or do not need.
The spiritual experience in This World is a cyclical, not a linear, growth trajectory. In one moment, a person may find him or herself capable of an intense level of involvement in Divine activity, while the next moment is one of confusion, distraction and a contracted consciousness, like, “who has time for this? I gotta get to work!” Even the greatest tzaddikim have their spiritual ups and downs, moments when they are ascending the heights of heaven through learning and prayer, followed by moments when they are hunting through the aisles at the supermarket. But, “without flour, there is no Torah” (Avot 3:17); people have to eat, they have to restore themselves in order to pick up the torch again. For this reason our Sages of blessed memory have said, “sometimes the [temporary] nullfication of Torah is its fulfillment” (Menachot 99b; see Likutei Moharan I:16).
May we be joyous in the living of life and connected to G-d at all times.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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