The Unexamined Life
Parashat Ki Tavo
This week’s parashah is replete with harrowing curses that will befall us if we disobey God’s will and hopeful blessings we merit if we listen to God’s word and strive to fulfill it. One blessing in particular stands out, not only for its unique content or imagery, but also because it is a key to understanding the nature of blessing in general. The berakhah (blessing) states:
ְיצַו ה' אִתְּךָ אֶת הַבְּרָכָה בַּאֲסָמֶיךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ וּבֵרַכְךָ בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ:
God will cause blessing to accompany1 you in your storehouses and in all of your undertakings. And He will bless you in the land that HaShem your God gives to you.
Read without its Rabbinic interpretation, this berakhah simply promises financial success. You will be so successful and your fields will be so productive that your storehouses will be bursting with grain. However, though the Torah often speaks about fields and orchards, granaries and threshing floors, this is the only time in the Torah2 where the term asam, storehouse, is used. Perhaps because it is so unusual, the term asam attracts the eye of R. Yitzhak, who puns on this word, then uses that pun to illustrate the nature of blessings in general:
תלמוד בבלי תענית ח:3
ואמר רבי יצחק: אין הברכה מצויה אלא בדבר הסמוי מן העין, שנאמר יצו ה' אתך את הברכה באסמיך.
תנא דבי ר' ישמעאל: אין הברכה מצויה אלא בדבר שאין העין שולטת בו, שנאמר יצו ה' אתך את הברכה באסמיך. ת"ר הנכנס למוד את גרנו אומר: יר"מ ה' אלקינו שתשלח ברכה במעשה ידינו, התחיל למוד אומר: ברוך השולח ברכה בכרי הזה. מדד ואח"כ בירך הרי זו תפלת שוא, לפי שאין הברכה מצויה לא בדבר השקול ולא בדבר המדוד ולא בדבר המנוי, אלא בדבר הסמוי מן העין.
Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 8b
R. Yitzhak said: Blessing is only found in something that is hidden (samuy) from the eye, as it says, God will cause blessing to accompany4 you in your storehouses (asamekha).
The school of R. Yishmael taught: Blessing is only found in something that the eye does not have power over [i.e., something that is invisible], as it says, God will cause blessing to accompany you in your storehouses.
Our Rabbis taught: When entering into the threshing floor in order to measure the grain, he says, “May it be Your will, HaShem our God, that You send blessing to our undertaking.” When he begins to measure, he says, “Blessed is the One who sends blessing to the pile [of grain].” If he measured and then blessed, then this is a futile prayer, since blessing is not found in what is weighed, measured, or counted, rather only in what is hidden from the eye.
This passage from Ta’anit presents a clear consensus: blessing—increasing in either quality or quantity—is found only in the places that we cannot see. What is less clear from these teachings is why. Why is it that blessing is restricted in where it can emerge and why is it tied specifically to the places that are invisible? And how is this insight applicable to those of us who do not believe that God will supernaturally increase our yield if we turn our backs on our crops?
The Maharsha5 explains that the reason why blessing comes only in concealed places is that those areas, the places that the eye does not claim, are the areas of life that are protected from the evil eye, the ayin hara.6 The ayin hara is invited when something good is scrutinized, when attention is called to it. On Bava Metzia 107a, a teaching is quoted in the name of Rav that prohibits a person from gazing upon someone else’s field when the crops are at their height and in full maturity. Rashi there explains that the reason why a person is forbidden from staring7 at the field of their friend is that doing so might invite loss or destruction through the evil eye. The gazing friend has no intention of causing any harm to his neighbor’s property, but the nature of the evil eye is that it comes through attention. Merely standing next to, even admiring, someone else’s harvest can cause their yield to be diminished!
It is critical to understand that the ayin hara is not necessarily the product or cause of a curse, but is rather merely the quite natural state or result of being scrutinized.8 The friend doesn’t stare at the crops in order to cast a spell on them. He has no intention to damage his neighbor’s field, but his attention to the crops in and of itself causes them to wither. The evil is in the noticing itself, which can invite jealousy and criticism. Once the field is watched it loses some of its beauty, some of its value, and some of its worth. A blessed crop is one that is protected from notice. It is not watched or evaluated. It remains good in and of itself.
When R. Yitzhak teaches that blessing is found only in the hidden places, his teaching is not formulated as a prescription (“one who wants blessing should hide their property”) but rather as a description. Blessing is the state of being protected, of being insulated from the evil eye. A blessed state is one where we accept what we have and enjoy it, without always counting it, without always evaluating how good it is or how much better it could be. The wealth or increase is not the berakhah. The true berakhah is the feeling of satisfaction, the freedom from the need to evaluate or praise, criticize and complain.
This understanding that what it truly means to be blessed is to feel at ease, to feel protected and secure is reflected in the priestly blessing, Birkat Kohanim. The Midrash Halakhah, Sifrei,9 notes that when the Kohanim say יברכך May God bless you, they do not mention any specifics regarding the content of the blessing. The Midrash therefore explains that the Kohanim are actually referring to the blessing in this week’s parashah. And Rashi’s explanation of the conclusion of this verse, וישמרך May God keep you, speaks directly to our understanding that true blessing is not about what we own, but in feeling secure in what we have:
רש"י במדבר ו:כד
וישמרך. שלא יבואו עליך שודדים ליטול ממונך, שהנותן מתנה לעבדו אינו יכול לשמרו מכל אדם, וכיון שבאים לסטים עליו ונוטלין אותה ממנו מה הנאה יש לו במתנה זו, אבל הקב"ה הוא הנותן הוא השומר.
Rashi to Bemidbar 6:24
May God keep you. So that no robbers will come and take your money. For one who gives a gift to his servant can’t protect [that gift from being impacted by] other people, and when bandits encounter [the servant] and take [the gift] from him, then what benefit does [the servant] actually have from this gift?! But the Holy Blessed One is both the giver and the guard.
According to Rashi, what makes a Divine blessing uniquely valuable is that you can trust it. If God gives you something, you can rely on it to remain in your possession. If the gift is yours when you fall asleep, you can trust it to be yours when you wake up. More than the quantity of what you received, the true blessing lies in not having to constantly check on it. It doesn’t require you to be guarding and monitoring and worrying about it. A true blessing stays with you.
However, the true meaning of the blessing in what is concealed from the eye comes not from the realm of financial wealth, but in the realm of spiritual gains. As the Akeidat Yitzhak10 explains:
עקידת יצחק סז:ה
הברכה האמתית היא הנאמרת על הצלחת הנפש אשר הוא דבר הסמוי מן העין כד"א עין לא ראתה אלהים זולתך יעשה למחכה לו (ישעי' סד:ג) וזאת הברכה היא מה שכוון באומרו אלהים יחננו ויברכנו (תהלים סז:ב)
Akeidat Yitzhak 67:5
The true blessing is that which is spoken regarding the success of the soul which is something that is hidden from the eye, as it says no eye has seen God but you, He will make things happen to the one who waits for Him (Yishayahu 64:3). And this is the blessing intended by [the verse from Tehilim 67:2], God will give us grace and bless us.
According to the Akeidat Yitzhak, the reason why God’s blessing devolves only on what is hidden from the eye is that God’s blessing is in the realm of the intangible and invisible, in the areas of religious growth and the soul’s success and flourishing.
This brings us to the more fundamental lesson about blessing: just as one should not be constantly counting their money and should instead be enjoying it, so too one should not be constantly measuring and quantifying one’s spiritual gains. Measuring and quantifying invites scrutiny and dissatisfaction with your financial success, and it has the same effect on your spiritual wealth. Measuring makes you worried that you don’t have enough and measuring makes you notice when you have more than enough, which in turn makes you worried that what you have might soon be gone.
This is a counterintuitive view of how to grow religiously. Particularly in this month of Elul, when repentance is foremost in our minds, we are drawn to scrutinizing ourselves. We choose to take very granular inventory of where we are, what we have done wrong, and what we have achieved. Yet there is a danger in this form of stock-taking. When you are constantly examining your progress, and you see that it is incremental, or maybe that you’ve even slid back a little, then you feel like you are constantly failing. We are constantly counting and weighing, and in the process, we can cut ourselves off from a very different and more blessed type of teshuvah process.
Instead of examining each interaction, each mitzvah done or not done, try to experience and enjoy the opportunity that we have to repent, to feel that God is invested in our growth and wants us to be close to Him. Constant vigilance and evaluation of our spiritual state can deprive us of the berakhah of the experience of true closeness to God. An attitude of blessing asks you to focus on the feelings and the relationship. It encourages you to have some moments in your life which you are not evaluating, which you are not thinking of in terms of more or less, better or worse. It asks you to stop questioning who you are for a moment and just bless God that you are who you are. Just for a moment, close the mental book where your good deeds and failings are inscribed. Set aside your image of God’s weighing your merits and demerits. Instead of saying, “I want to be better” or even saying, “I want to be closer,” say, “I am appreciative of this time of heightened spiritual awareness and the way that God is welcoming me back to Him with open arms.”
We live at a time when so much of what we do is quantified and measured. Pedometers count our every step, and we even have ways to quantify our social capital and the extent of our influence. We no longer look at the sun to see if it is time to pray, but instead look at our watches and count down the minutes. This relationship to the world is well-informed, but it is not relaxing. It does not come from or produce feelings of security and love, but rather fosters a sense of constant insecurity and competition. It takes us out of relationships that are natural and sustaining, and makes everything, good and bad, into a number and a measure, a potential source of stress. We are constantly asking how we are doing, instead of immersing ourselves in just doing what we are doing, living our lives with focus and joy.
We see this through the characterization of the Akeidat Yitzhak, where he argues that true blessing simply is hidden from the eye. It isn’t only that one should not be calculating the measure of one’s spiritual success, but inherent to true spiritual growth is the fact that it can’t be quantified! Observing our spiritual progress can strip it. It can make it into a shell of what it was and could be. Our relationship with God is just that, a relationship. It may be built through the performance of mitzvot, attending to God’s world, praying to Him, and loving one another, but it does not consist of these behaviors. Strong bonds are based upon presence and closeness, trust and forgiveness, recognizing that my life is different because You are in it. Strong bonds are torn apart by score-keeping and scrutiny. Love is supposed to make us feel comfortable and happy together; nothing is more destabilizing to a loving relationship than to constantly analyze it and highlight all of the areas where it is not measuring up.
Our parashah’s focus on the hidden blessing should encourage us to take a step back to appreciate the invisible and to honor the unseen in all areas of our lives, to ignore the details so that we can live the experience.
Wishing you a Shabbat of hidden blessings.
1 While commonly translated as “command,” I believe that the language of tzav here is better understood as coming from the language of joining, like the Aramaic tzavta. My thinking here is based on R. Jason Rubenstein, “What are Mitzvot? A Perspective from the Ethics of Care,” in The Search for Meaning, Martin Cohen and David Birnbaum, ed. (New York: New Paradigm Matrix, 2018), 411-437.
2 That is, in the Pentateuch. This term also appears in Mishlei 3:10.
3 This exact passage can also be found on Bava Metzia 42a. In both tractates this statement of R. Yitzhak and the Tannaitic interpretations that are joined to it are brought in the context of a list of statements attributed to R. Yitzhak. It is therefore difficult to refer to one or other as the primary or “original” location of this passage.
4 The difference between the teachings of R. Yitzhak and the school of R. Yishmael appears to be only basis of the derivation. R. Yitzhak makes a play on the sounds of asam and samuy, whereas R. Yishmael’s school focuses on the fact that grain in a silo is hidden, as opposed to grain that is growing in the field or is in the thresher or mill.
5 R. Shmuel Eidels, Poland, 1555-1631.
6 Maharsha Hiddushei Aggadot to Bava Metzia 42a.
7 See Bava Metzia 107a. Literally, the prohibition is to “stand upon” the field, though it is clear from the Talmudic context and from Rashi’s comment that the connotation of or problem with standing upon is actually gazing upon or drawing one’s attention to the property.
8 The Maharsha offers a demon as the alternative explanation to the evil eye, which suggests that his notion of the evil eye is certainly not demonic, and possibly not even supernatural.
9 Sifrei 144.
10 R. Yitzhak ben Mosha Arama, 1420-1494, Spain.