In our daily interactions with people, there are certain things we say to one another and don’t really expect a sincere answer back. The most obvious example is a simple greeting, where we ask, how are you? More often than not, the response is a canned insincere answer as there usually is an understanding that the asker doesn’t really care and is merely being polite and the respondent is echoing that politeness and giving an appropriate answer of fine, or ok, or something along those lines. Something that conveys the same meaning and sincerity of the question.
Something I like to do, not to put people on the spot, but to actually illustrate my care, is to follow up with a question. I want that person to know that I am genuinely interested in what they have to say and I am not just asking to fill space or to fulfill some social obligation of making conversation. For example, if someone says they’re fine, I will ask why? It is revealing about the human condition that many times the answer to that question is simply, because nothing is bad.
We are conditioned to ignore when things are not going badly and to focus when things go awry. The order of normality is disregarded because it is normal and expected. This pattern is seen in this week’s parsha, Behar. There are a series of blessings and curses, depending on if we follow God’s laws. The rabbis were puzzled as to why the curses far outnumber the blessings. Is it simply because we are human beings and we focus on the negative? We are very specific when detailing things that are not going well, if we are in pain, or suffering a loss. Indeed, when you stub your toe, you exclaim that your toe hurts.
But, what about when things go well? How specific are you? How detailed are you about the joy you experienced? If you have not stubbed your toe and are not in pain, do you detail the lack of pain in your toe? Of course not. That is not the way we communicate.
Indeed, the rabbi’s teach that the Torah is written in the language of the people and therefore, the blessings are written about in a general, yet all-encompassing way and the curses are written in a detailed, yet limited fashion. So, it would be incorrect to see the curses as outnumbering the blessings, as they are extremely constrained, whereas the blessings could be without limit. The text needs to detail the potential ill effects of disobeying God in great detail, but just like our modern communications, if things are going well, the text does not need to convey what that would look like in great detail. In broad generalities, we are given a picture of a society living in harmony with God’s will.
I would also like to wish Alfie Keene a Mazal Tov on his Bar Mitzvah. Join me as we come together celebrate with Alfie and his family this Shabbat.