BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / AJT //

torahImagine you come home one day to find two gifts on your kitchen counter: a box, carefully wrapped and topped with a big sparkling bow, and a jar filled with a sort of black smog.

You see a note that reads, “Here, I bought both of these for you, but you can only pick one.”

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Most likely, you and I and everyone else would leave the black jar on the floor, happily accept the beautifully wrapped box, and never look back to question our decision.

But what if there was more to it? What if the price tags were still attached to both gifts, and one was clearly more expensive than the other? What if you knew that whichever gift you didn’t choose would go to your best friend?

All of these issues – the emotions and consequences – end up affecting which gift you choose. It all should be so simple, but never is.

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses tells the Israelites:

“I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know” – Deuteronomy 11:26-28

There it is: a clouded simplicity. G-d is presenting the Israelites with two gifts: a blessing and a curse. And though clearly a blessing seems like a better gift than a curse, it also comes with greater responsibility. So, what now? What gift do you choose?

Truthfully, I find passages like these – ones that seem harsh in their definitions of right and wrong – difficult to read. No, I don’t follow all 613 commandments detailed in the Torah – most of us don’t. But I still don’t feel deserving of a curse.

And even though such thinking could potentially send me to the brink of a theological crisis, I’ve found that generally there’s another way – an alternative way – to make sense of the Torah..

In this week’s Torah portion, re’ah, we are asked “to see”. And if I examine what it really means to receive blessings and curses from G-d, I find there are multiple understandings.

For 15 centuries, before turning to Hebrew, the Jewish people spoke Aramaic and many translations of the Torah are written in this ancient language. One version was translated by a Jewish sage, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel. According to his translation, Moses spoke of a blessing and a chilufa, an exchange or transmutation.

Already, given this translation, the meaning of Moses’ words has changed dramatically. But what if we take this mental exercise a step farther? Obviously, a transmutation implies that something is being changed; but notice the obscurity of what exactly is undergoing change.

Some people might think that “a blessing and a transmutation” really means, “a blessing and its transmutation”; perhaps better stated, a blessing and a blessing that we ruined.

I like to think, however, that using “transmutation” instead of “curse” suggests the possibility of redemption.

“I set before you today a blessing and a transmutation.” So, I can either do the right thing and be blessed, or do the wrong thing and G-d will assist me in changing my ways so that I may do better next time. The change, as I see it, is a personal one. It’s not a curse, but rather an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

The beauty of the Torah is that it’s intentionally written with these sorts of ambiguities and contradictions. This parshah tells us that G-d has brought a blessing and a curse, but a verse in Lamentations says, “From the Lord our G-d’s word there cannot emerge both good and evil”.

All this give and take can be frustrating and confusing, but it’s also beautiful because it allows all of us to find comfort in one special book.

We’re all given the same options – a beautifully wrapped blessing or a curse in a jar – but wonderfully, the choices mean entirely different things to each of us.

Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl.edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.

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