Shaya Cohen - creativejudaism.org

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My Yom Kippur Speech

Jews are big on introspection. And Yom Kippur is the most introspective day of them all.

On this day, we consider the past year, and we dig deep to find faults, search to examine aspects of our behavior which could use correction or improvement. After all, we are told, repeatedly, that our lives can be for a blessing, or for a curse.

But what creates a curse?

In the Torah, curses come to those who interfere in someone else’s relationship.

How can I make such a claim? Because Jacob and his mother, Rivka, made it.

Here is the context: Isaac had asked Esau to go hunt and make Isaac food that he loved. And after that, Isaac had promised to give Esau a blessing.

When they discuss deceiving Isaac to steal the blessing Isaac meant for Esau, Jacob says:

אוּלַ֤י יְמֻשֵּׁ֙נִי֙ אָבִ֔י וְהָיִ֥יתִי בְעֵינָ֖יו כִּמְתַעְתֵּ֑עַ וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה, וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה

I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me!”

What were they doing? They were deceiving Isaac, to be sure. Deception is acting against good faith behavior, against emes. And that might bring a curse. But there is another facet here that may escape most peoples’ notice: Rivka and Jacob were also getting in the middle of the relationship between Isaac and Esau!

And when Rivka and Jacob get in the middle, they interfere with the relationship of father and son. They stopped Esau from honoring his father, and they stopped Isaac from blessing his son (in the way he had expected). They broke the family apart!

And a curse certainly resulted: Rivka’s death is unmarked. She is deprived of the son she loves for many years – and Jacob is similarly deprived of his own favored son, Joseph, for the same number of years. The family does not start to turn into a nation for another generation (Jacob’s sons were the first to choose to live with their father). In short, the decision to get in the middle of someone else’s relationship brought delay for some and ruin for others.

And I think the lesson here is one we should consider deeply in our own lives. How many times do we give flippant advice to others on how they should deal with their parents, or children or spouses? How many times do we assume we know what is best for someone else in their own world?

Too many.

Think of the popular trend these days of women complaining about men. People sit around, identify the negative, and tell others what they should be doing. Marriages are broken and ruined by people who are not even in the marriage, but whose advice or general demeanor corrodes and eats away at the best intentions of someone else. Imagine, if you will, the consequences of helping to push someone else to divorce their spouse? Consider that the weight of everything that happens after that, all the damage to the married couple and to children and society is, to some extent, your fault.

It is no better, of course, when men bad-mouth women. When we take an individual person, who has their own life and their own challenges, and submit them to facile categorization because of their sex or marital status or frankly, anything else, we are not treating them as a person: we are treating them as a statistic. That is not the Torah way.

I know that I have a lot of room to grow in this area. I know that it is always easy to tell someone else what to do. And I think that it behooves us, especially those of us whose advice is sought after or valued, to be profoundly aware of the weight that comes with that power. It is a great responsibility.

We are also told not to curse G-d, and especially our parents. This is, on its face, not too hard: we can avoid cursing our parents, surely!

But what if the meaning of the word klal is not necessarily a curse? What might it mean?

Then [Noach] sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased [klal] from the surface of the ground.

And

He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered [klal] in her esteem.

If the word klalah really has the same meaning as it does elsewhere in the text, then perhaps “curse” is really just “diminishing?” In that case, “cursing” our parents is something we have all done, in some way, at some point. Perhaps we make excuses for our parents, or are embarrassed about them. Maybe we make light of them in some way, or even mock their limitations or ignorance. We might even have the most righteous complaint in the world – they might legitimately be awful parents – but the Torah does not care: we do not diminish our parents.

Yet another thing to keep in mind when contemplating how we can be better going forward.

So when we interfere with the relationships others, the consequence is that we are reduced in some way: in possessions, or stature, honor, or love. When we get in the way, we harm their lives, and, the Torah says, we reduce our own potential to attain blessing, increase in all things.

Food for thought. And food for repentance.

[Note that I am not reviewing a different word for “curse”, arur, but instead the word that is usually used as the opposite of a blessing. Arur, for example, is the word used against the snake and the land after eating the fruit. Arur seems to mean a specific harm, while klalah means a general reduction of some kind.]

Comments are welcome!

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