A Puzzling Midrash

This week’s parsha opens with the words:

         “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.”

The Hebrew word for “I” used in this verse is anochi and not the more common ani. The question here is why? Ba’al Haturimsuggests that there is a correlation between this verse and the opening verse of the Ten Commandments: “I [Anochi] am G-d your G-d…”

We must start by understanding the connection between the blessings and the curses in our parsha and the opening words of the Ten Commandments.

There is a Midrash that seems to react to this matter:

“The Holy One, blessed is He, said: ‘I did not give you the blessings and the curses for your detriment, but rather to let you know that you should choose the good approach in order for you to receive a reward.’ How do we know this? From that which we read ’See, I [present before you today a blessing and a curse].’”

The wording of the Midrash is puzzling. We can easily understand why one might think that curses are harmful, and that we must be told that, in fact, they are for our benefit. But, why would anyone think that the blessings were given to us for our detriment? Why does the Midrash have to impress upon us that the blessings are good for us?

The work Shem Yisroel provides the following explanation based on the interpretation of the verse in Psalms (62:13) found in the classic work, Sefer Haikarim: “And Yours, my L-rd, is kindness, for You reward each man in accordance with his deeds.” 

Two Standards

When a person transgresses against G-d, could any punishment be adequate. How can we be absolved of our sin when we have sinned against the infinite G-d? G-d is boundless and eternal and so, logic dictates, our punishment should likewise be eternal; no finite repentance could help remove the effects of sin. However, G-d, in is infinite kindness, does not view our sins relative to Himself and His standards, but rather He measures the sin relative to human standards. The punishment is, therefore, finite just as we are finite. Teshuvah, we learn, has the power to mitigate our crime.

By contrast, when it comes to reward for the good that we do, G-d measures our observance of His commandments using the standard of the Divine Commander who is infinite and rewards us with infinite reward.

This assertion of the Haikarim can be challenged: Why is there such a distinction between reward and punishment; punishment is temporary and finite, whereas reward is infinite and eternal?

The author of the work Shem Yisroel explains:

Of the 613 commandments we were given, only two were heard directly from G-d. These are: ’I am G-d your G-d… And do not have any …’ The remaining 611 were transmitted to us through a human leader, Moses.”

Since those commandants were given through a mortal, it stands to reason that the punishment for their violation should be measured by human standards, which are finite and temporal.

While this explains why punishment is limited, it does not explain why G-d’s rewards for performing Mitzvos are indeed infinite matching G-d’s infinite and eternal standards. Did we not receive the positive commandments through the channel of Moses as well?

What Motivates Us?

Shem Yisroel tells us that the difference between transgressing the negative commandments and observing the positive commandments relates to our motivation to perform them.

We are in possession of two separate souls; a G-dly soul and an Animal soul. When we perform a positive commandment, we are influenced by our G-dly soul. By contrast, when we violate one of the Torah’s negative commandments it is obviously not motivated by our G-dly soul but rather by our Animal soul. Deep down, at our core, Maimonides writes, no Jew would ever go against G-d’s will. The desire to sin comes from the Animal soul’s imposition on the G-dly soul. Our true inner will is to do G-d’s bidding. The part of us that goes against G-d is the work of an outside animal force that imposes itself on us.

Hence, when we do a Mitzvah, where the impetus for its performance derives from our G-dly soul, G-d measures our Mitzvah with G-dly standards. The reward is thus measured accordingly. However, when it is the Animal soul that is responsible for our transgression, the punishment is measured by the yardstick of the finite and temporal Animal Soul.

So there are two factors that limit punishment to finite proportions:

First, we received these commandments from Moses and not directly from G-d.

Second, the motivating force of our transgressions is our Animal Soul.

The reward for Mitzvah observance is measured by G-dly standards, despite the fact that we heard them from Moses, because it is the Divine soul that is responsible for our behavior and our reward is measured in G-dly dimensions.

There is yet a third reason why the reward for compliance is infinite. When we perform the Mitzvos of the Chukim genre which defy rationality, G-d reciprocates in kind and rewards us in a transcendent fashion, i.e., by Divine standards.

One might add, that even the Mitzvos that are rational must be performed not only because they make sense but because they also possess a supra-rational basis. And when we transcend our own understanding of those rational Mitzvos, G-d too goes beyond His conventional and natural system of reward.

Clarifying the Midrash

We can now shed light on the Midrash quoted at the very beginning of this essay:

“The Holy One, blessed is He, said: ‘I did not give you the blessings and the curses for your detriment, but rather to let you know that you should choose the good approach in order for you to receive a reward.’ How do we know this? From that which we read ‘See, I [present before you today a blessing and a curse].’”

G-d asked the Levites to bless the Children of Israel.  The Children were concerned that those blessings would be limited since they would not come directly from G-d but through the Levites. They were concerned that the nature of their reward would be compromised.

The truth of the matter is that those blessings did in fact come directly from G-d; the role of the Levites was to indicate the nature of the blessings and the curses.

Thus, the Midrash states that G-d said: “I did not give you the blessings and the curses for your detriment.” Here detriment means that the blessings would be limited and flawed. Thus the Midrash asserts that, in truth, G-d did not intend for these blessings to be deficient because they were ostensibly transmitted by the Levites. G-d gave these blessings directly.

To support that idea, the Midrash cites the opening words of this week’s parsha: “See, I [present before you today a blessing and a curse].” As stated above, the Hebrew word used for “I” here is Anochi, not the more common ani. It is the same word with which G-d opens the Ten Commandments. This was meant to reinforce that, just as the opening commandants were heard by every Jew directly from G-d, so too these blessings derive directly from G-d and are therefore capable of generating infinite and eternal power.

We will experience this infinite reward for all the Mitzvos we perform in the present with the coming of Moshiach and primarily in the era of the Resurrection of the Dead. In the present, we cannot absorb anything that is infinite, so that whatever reward we can experience, it is by definition finite. When Moshiach comes, and particularly after the Resurrection of the Dead, the world will be exposed to G-d’s infinite power and then we will be able to be receptive to G-d’s infinite blessings.

Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

Published in Parsha

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