The weekly Torah portion that Jews worldwide read in the synagogue on the Sabbath (which falls on September 8 this year) lists long arrays of blessings and curses that we may either invite on ourselves or avoid respectively as a consequence of our adherence to God’s laws. Let’s examine two examples, each of a kind, and see how relevant they may be in our lives today, milennia after Moses bespoke them first to the people of Israel:
“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field” (Deuteronomy 28:3). In the agrarian society of ancient times, the reading of Scripture would occur in the city, a place where the farmers’ market would be held twice a week, attracting the farmers from the field. Our synagogues – and, for that matter, other houses of prayer – are mainly found(ed) similarly in larger settlements rather than in rural areas. It is the people of the periphery or suburbia who need to travel to a more central place for the purpose of public prayer. In coming together to the city, to our house of worship, we bless each other by behaving there on our best terms; everyone is an examplar of politeness and religious discpline. Moses thus blessed the people that such conduct would not only be a blessing for the city, but spill over to bless the field where we live, or our homes away from our urban religious center, as well.
Indeed, many of us behave differently outside the house of worship than we do when we are in it. Some of us drive dangerously, gossip, cheat and show indifference to the poor, etc. Moses’ blessing was that we blessed our homes and personal surroundings with the same kindness and religiosity we demonstrated “in the city.”
Moses then warned the people that they would be serving their enemies “because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness” (28:47). Indeed, this is the only transgression that is mentioned specifically as a reason for other horrific curses. The idea here is that we do not only shirk our responsibilities to God, but do so joyfully and whole-heartedly. Still, why the curse of vassalage in this context? Needless to say, slaves and vassals do not serve their lording masters joyfully. And those who did not serve their God joyously would end up serving their oppressors in the same fashion.
Now, rather than external foes, we may also view our oppressors as personal destructive habits, addictions and indecent lifestyle to which we have submitted our lives, yet surely not rejoicingly. Nevertheless, the choice is always ours.