God guides our choices through blessings, curses

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, has a dramatic beginning that always surprises me: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” Well, if you’re going to put it that way, I guess the choice should be easy — choose the blessing! Yet surprisingly, the choice isn’t always easy. Why? Why is it that when we are faced with blessings and curses, the choices don’t seem so clear-cut?
Sometimes the answer is pure and simple: human weakness. I should exercise more because my doctor is always telling me I should. And on those rare occasions when I actually do, I feel better, so I know I should. Yet the pain of exercising is concentrated in those few minutes, while the benefits, the blessings of exercise, are diffuse. And I am weak, choosing the path of least resistance, a path that inevitably leads to a worse outcome.
Sometimes the answer is neither pure nor simple. Sometimes the difficulty in choosing between the blessing and the curse lies in our difficulty perceiving when a blessing is disguised as a curse or a curse is disguised as a blessing. Today, it is the rare person who has never lost a job, and losing a job is a painful experience that feels like a curse. Yet there are times when the job you lose is the job you’ve hated but have been afraid to quit. Losing that type of job can be a blessing in disguise.
Many people fantasize about winning the lottery and never having to worry about the lack of money again. Yet history shows us time and again instances where sudden wealth — winning the lottery, a large inheritance, a poor country discovering valuable natural resources — can lead to devastating results. What normally is, and should be, a blessing can in actual fact become a curse.
Hardest of all is when blessings are mixed with curses. Modern medicine is a miracle and a blessing, extending our lives when in previous centuries we would have died. Yet sometimes, artificially extending our lives also lengthens the suffering we can experience at the end of our lives. Sometimes the blessing is mixed with a curse, making our choices neither simple nor pure.
Why is it hard to choose between blessings and curses? Because our choices aren’t always black and white and are, in fact, usually in various shades of gray. So how should we choose?
I am reminded of a teaching by the great 20th-century scholar, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, who taught: “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.” Personally, God speaks most clearly to me through the prophet Micah (6:8) when we are told to do justice, love kindness and walk modestly with God. How do we choose the blessings? We choose blessings when we are honest and true and seek to create a more fair and just society. How do we avoid the curses? We avoid the curses when we act kindly and embrace mercy. And while we seek to walk in God’s ways, we must do so with a sense of modesty and humility. Because when we study God’s word and God speaks to us, it is in a still, small voice that we fallible human beings might mishear.
Blessings and curses are set before us. Let us do justice, love kindness, and walk modestly with God to make the better choices.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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