Curses into Blessings

The Tokheha (Admonishment) refers to the passage of curses that Moses relayed to the Israelites by way of moral lesson and warning. These curses are repeated twice in the Torah, in this week’s portion, Parashat Be-Hukotai (Lev. 26:14-46) and in Parashat Ki-Tavo (Deut. 28:15-69).

In the Mishnah these verses are called curses (kelalot). They were customarily read on public fast days, as the Mishnah (Megillah 3,6) informs us: “On fast days, [one reads] blessings and curses,” and on other set occasions, as stated in the baraitha (Megillah 31b): but in the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah, 8) they are called admonishments (tokheha), not curses, as it says there: “for they are not curses, rather they are admonishments.”

Today, many of us observe only a few of the fast days that our ancestors did. If we keep in mind that fasting was thought of a way to change both oneself and a decree, it makes a great deal of sense to see these admonishments linked to fast days reminding us why we need to change.

In several Hassidic courts the admonishments were viewed as curses which embedded in them great blessings. This notion was apparently derived from the Zohar, which held that all admonishments are actually blessings, even if on the surface they appear to be curses.   

It is told of Rabbi Nahum of Tchernobil, a sickly man afflicted with all sorts of ailments, in his youth spent the Sabbath on which the Admonishment was read with the Ba’al Shem Tov. When he was especially selected to come up to the Torah for the passage containing the Admonishment, at first he became somewhat faint. But then, as the Ba’al Shem Tov began reading from the Torah scroll, Rabbi Nahum felt all his pains gradually dissipating, limb by limb, and by the time the reading was through, his body had become entirely healed.

And another story told in Mo’ed Katan 9b, that Rabbi Eleazar was sent by his father, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, to receive a blessing from Rabbi Jonathan ben Amasai and Rabbi Judah ben Gerim. In their blessing they said to him: “May it be [the Lord’s] will that you sow and not reap, that you take in and not put out, that you put out and not take in.” When he returned to his father and said to him, “Not only did they not bless me, they even distressed me, saying bad things to me,” his father answered him: “All those things are blessings,” that he sow and not reap meaning that he have children and they not die; that he take in and not put out meaning that he take in brides for his sons and his sons not die, leading him to put the brides out; and so on and so forth.

If we change our perspective – as Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai did, and thus our interpretation of these statements, we can see that rather than just eliciting fear, they are expressions of caring. We may not be able to see the same silver-lining that the ancient rabbis or the Hassidic masters were able to see, yet it is when we care about people that we encourage them to do the right thing and we help them see both the positive and negative possibilities of their actions. Of course, choosing the right way to do that is critical. Some people may be motivated by fear, others by love, and others by logic.

How does one come to see these curses or admonishments as blessings in our time? Is it enough to understand that the language of the admonishments reflects familiar language structure that was common in the ancient near east and the blessing is that 2000 years later we are still reading this text? Perhaps you can look at these admonishments as a list of possible consequences, not punishments. Or try to read the admonishments as reminders to do the work, whether it is emotional or physical, to turn what we think of as curses into blessings. You may change what may have seemed to be curses by changing yourself. 

JoHanna Potts