Choosing between a blessing and a curse is easy or is it


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Isaiah 54:11-55:5

Given the choice between doing something easy that makes a big difference versus watching TV commercials (particularly annoying commercials), the choice is easy to make.

While some decisions are hard, others are no-brainers. We often get stuck when choosing between two values, but given the choice between a value and a non-value, a sense of direction becomes obvious.

Our Torah portion opens up with a baffling “choice.” “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse …” (11:26). A similar set of options is presented later, in chapter 30, when between life and death we are encouraged to “choose life.”

What kind of choices are these? Of course! The choice is obvious.

On further thought, though, the issue becomes murkier. If you think about it, people engage in various forms of self-destructive behavior all the time. Why? It is so excruciating to see someone that we love inexplicably driving themselves and everyone around them into the ground, and we feel so helpless. And that includes witnessing the pain on the face we see in the mirror each morning.

In an intriguing essay I picked up at Bar Ilan University a few years ago, Rabbi Ari Kahn notes that in truth, we’ve seen this before. In the Garden of Eden there were two trees, one of life and one of good and evil. Which one did we choose to consume? The fruit of the latter!

Not only that, Eve even says explicitly that she was told that she would die upon eating from the tree. It doomed us to mortality, so why in the world did we eat it?

Let me state clearly: This column is certainly not offering an exhaustive psychological listing of the reasons for self-destructive behavior, and often there is a critical need for competent professional intervention.

But an examination of the appeals made by the serpent to tempt Eve can offer food for thought.

Saadia Gaon’s approach explains the line “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as trying to sow seeds of doubt. Knowing that Eve wants to eat, he plants the question of whether this is really problematic. Maybe it is actually all right.

Here, desire clouds judgment. I so badly want this to be reality that I will fool myself into thinking that this course of action will not hurt me.

The Radak explains the line “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as a suggestion that HaShem must hate us to deny us so. We are despised by the One who created us. We are worthless. The one who brought me into this world sees no value in my presence. The human being comes to hate itself, and seeks a way to numb that ever-present pain. So he eats of the tree, or whatever the contemporary example may be.

The Chizkuni explains the line “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as tempting rebellion: Who is that HaShem to be telling you what to do? How restrictive! This plays on the person wanting to establish individual identity, and we do the opposite of what we are told (even if it is bad for us) just to make the point.

Finally, Ibn Ezra explains the line “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as making the demands seem unattainable. Despair is the explanation: You can’t do it, so why bother trying to succeed anymore? It is all a failure. Just give up and do whatever comes along — there is no point anyway.

But we see that Eve was making a mistake and choosing “curse” over “blessing” — none of what the serpent tells her is actually true.

Every human being does have value, does have a unique identity as a result of who he or she is (not a function of our productivity), and we can indeed succeed in some measure. The serpent lies to us, and too often we believe him.

It is indeed a difficult choice after all: to seek the help that will remind us of our own greatness and potential.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]