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Curses and Blessings: Human Freedom and Human Responsibility

10/22/2020 11:27:48 AM


Charlotte Sussman, Guest Scholar


This way, that way street sign

Note: Charlotte celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Adath Shalom this past Shabbat after many delays due to the pandemic. Mazal Tov to her and to her parents, Jon and Joy and brother Zachary. We were delighted to be able to hold the service in our sanctuary in accordance with New Jersey State guidelines and the guidelines of our Reopening Committee.

Although her D'var Torah was written for the conclusion of the Book of Leviticus, her teachings are powerful, compelling and I believe even more relevant than ever. Charlotte presents her understanding of the Torah's teachings about human freedom and the awesome responsibility we are charged with. Timely words indeed. Mazal Tov and enjoy!
-Rabbi Rudin

In my portion, as the third book of the Torah ends, G-d tells Moshe about the Shemittah and Jubilee years. Shemittah is the mitzvah that every seven years you have to stop messing with the land and growing food and let the land have a Shabbat. You might ask, how are we supposed to get food if we aren’t allowed to farm or harvest. The Torah says that we must trust to G-d that enough food will grow wild to supply our needs.

The Jubilee is the 7th Shemittah year- in other words, every 49 years. It’s not just to let the land rest like Shemittah. We are told to give all property back to the original owners’ families after the Exodus from Egypt. All debts are cancelled, and all servants go free.
The book concludes with a list of blessings if we keep the Shemittah and Jubilee and terrible curses if we do not. But even if those curses end up happening, if we turn to G-d then the curses will end. There is always a way back to G-d. This is the central teaching of Judaism.

When we were studying this, I thought of something: The Torah says that we have free will. After the flood, G-d told us that G-d would no longer directly intervene in daily life. We are supposed to be responsible for our own choices and their consequences. If that is true, then how can G-d promise to intervene during the Shemittah year to make sure we have enough food? How can G-d threaten curses if G-d is not directly involved in daily physical human life?
 Some religions believe that G-d directly intervenes human life despite what the Torah says. They think that if you get a deadly disease it is because you have sinned. They even teach that earthquakes and disasters happen because of human wrongdoing. We are taught that we have free will which means that we are not directly rewarded or punished for our actions by G-d: this would violate our free will and make us into trained seals and not free beings. If a seal balances a ball on its nose it gets a fish. We do not believe that G-d rewards our good deeds in such a simple way. Being kind often has no reward: that is why doing it matters. The reward, says the Talmud, is the good deed itself.

What I think is that either G-d--and by G-d I mean the creative energy of the universe- guides us through tough times and points us to a solution or perhaps if something incredibly terrible is happening and life becomes a downward tumble, G-d will intervene in one small, hidden way to point us in the right direction and let us go from there. These ways of G-d’s presence do not violate free will but make it clear that G-d loves us and supports us. However, we can punish or reward ourselves by being caring people and following the covenant—which means the curses are not curses at all, but consequences. If another country is having a famine, helping them will stop them from raiding you. Helping the poor will stop them from rising up against you.

Here is the teaching that I would like you to take with you from today: we are not puppets on God’s—or anyone else’s—strings. We are in charge of our actions. We are in charge of our words. Most importantly, we are in charge of our own destinies. Therefore, our choices matter. Every small thing we do, every step we take, is our responsibility. The human power can be terrifying in what it can do...or what it can fail to do.

Wed, July 28 2021 19 Av 5781