This week our portion begins:
26. See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse;[Deuteronomy 11:26]
For the last few weeks or so I’ve been wondering something: what exactly is a blessing and a curse? The answer from the biblical text seems simple:
27. A blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day; 28. And a curse, if you will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known.[Deuteronomy 11:27-28]
It seems obvious, yet it also seems a little unjust. It presents the dilemma many have asked: what happens when bad thing happen to good people? In this simple version, there’s only one answer: you did something bad. The Midrash gives a parable of a king who holds a gold necklace in one hand and Iron chains in the other and asks his servant: make a choice of how I am to handle you.
Many have also asked these questions about big events, like 9/11 or the Shoah. I’m more interested in smaller, more personal events. We’ve all have them – they may be very small things like a bad day, to more significant events, such as an auto accident, and disability, or other tragic trauma to our lives.
I have disabilities I genetically inherited from my grandfather. I also have had two rather traumatic events in my life, leading to other disabilities. Looking at these events against what I did wrong just doesn’t make sense. So I’m left asking: why did these things happen to me?
I was contemplating this last Friday afternoon, frustrated with many of these problems in many spheres. The easiest one to talk about is my summer long frustration with two problems I was born with: motor hand coordination problem and color blindness. When I was young I frequently flunked art and got horrible grades in handwriting. The classic story which I’ve told many times was the time I was ridiculed in front of the class for coloring Abraham Lincoln’s face sea green, since I couldn’t tell the sea green from the peach crayon. Even in my first graduate school, when I did my comprehensive examinations, I almost failed due to my inability to write fast and legible enough to complete the exams.
To think I was taking a life drawing and painting class this summer when I had such horrible experiences is amazing. I have learned to use watercolor, and most of my issues can be addressed in that media. When I switched to pastel and Acrylic for this class, my past came back. While I can make color by laying two colors over one another in watercolor, picking out a specific pastel stick, or mixing my own colors was not so easy. It was near impossible. I thought about that last night as I was panicking in the middle of mixing the right skin mid-tone color. I’ve though about that on many occasions when I am unable to perform some function or another. Like I said I’ve had a lot of those happen recently and some not as innocent as what color to make a face.
So I was feeling down on myself last Friday, when I started to listen to an interview with Sean Stephenson on a podcast I subscribe to. Stephenson was born with a bone disease which does not let his bones grow. Indeed they are extremely brittle. Most die in childhood, though Stephenson has survived and is now in his thirties. Because of this, he has only grown to three feet high and is confined to a wheel chair, always concerned about breaking his fragile as glass bones. He told the interviewer the story of when his life changed around. He was in fourth grade and it was Halloween, the only day of the year he wasn’t stared at like a freak. Unfortuantely, he accidentally broke his leg. Crying “Why did this disease happen to me?” his mother responded by giving him a choice: this could either be a curse, or this could be a gift. It was up to him to decide. It was for him a defining moment.
Stephenson told another story in the interview of a girlfriend who broke up with him. She complained to him that had the mind he has been in a different body, she would have loved him. He retorted back “my mind is because of this body.” Many times our world has things in it which seem negative. Though our own effort and God’s will, curses may be turned into many positives. The first time I experienced it, was in a high school elective of fencing for my PE class. My lack of coordination made it difficult for me to catch or throw balls, run, or do many of the athletic things most kids take for granted. I often was the kid who nobody wanted to pick because I was so inept at sports. That was until senor year of high school when I took the fencing elective. Another way I am not ‘normal’ is I am left handed. Picking up a left handed foil I ended up going undefeated against a class of right handed students who had no defense against me. I ended up coaching fencing in college.
But I look at my paintings, including that acrylic one I did finish last night, and I can be proud of my work. As I have learned from my teacher I have turned my colorblindness to my advantage. When I paint, I do not think that this thing has to be green or this thing has to be yellow. I think this thing need to be dark and this thing has to be light. I don’t get tripped up by color as do many students. I get incredibly methodical in my mixing of colors. Ironically, being colorblind means my pieces are glowing and fresh with color. A curse is really a blessing – but only because I made it so and learned color theory.
While the rest of the section reviews many mitzvot, this one line may be at its heart. How we view and act in the world may change what happens to us. We can see anything for good or ill. It may be a blessing or a curse. The mitzvot is a tool for keeping us in the right frame of mind to see things as blessings. When a date who was non religious asked me about some mitzvot mentioned in this week’s portion, kashrut, I told her it was important to me not because it was a rule forced on me but because it was a way of making my life a bit more holy. Granted, I’m not the most observant when it comes to kashrut. Kashrut for me means I’m looking in the world for blessings, not curses. When I say all the blessings of the morning service, I notice more blessings around me, from a beautiful painting on my wall to an interview of Sean Stephenson showing up exactly when it did. Some of my supposed curses, like Stephenson, gave me opportunities that others don’t have to grow and build my self in ways I never could have imagined.
Curses and blessings? Maybe only God knows. Or maybe God only gives challenges and it is up to us to make them a curse or make them a blessing.