Vayikra: 26: 3-46
Frieda could always tell when one of Jason’s job interviews had gone badly. They lived in a fourth-floor walkup in an older section of Hoboken, and from their kitchen window you could see clear down to the bus stop on Washington Street. When things had gone well, Jason would come off the NJT bus with his back straight and his arms swinging, like he didn’t have a care in the world. But when things had gone badly, he would walk all stooped over, Cro-Magnon-like, and look down toward the ground as he staggered home.
Today Jason definitely had a prehistoric, antediluvian look as he made his way down the street towards their apartment building. Judging from his posture, Frieda assumed this interview went particularly poorly. It was hard to find a job in human resources when the economy was so bad. And when there was such slim pickings on the corporate front, no one cared that you had a PhD in anthropology from Princeton. If anything, many employers considered Jason overqualified for many of their starting-level positions. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying. He had a family to support.
Frieda set up the coffee maker so that his cup would be ready when he walked through the door (skim milk and Truvia). She cut a healthy-sized chunk of brownie from the pan and slipped it into the microwave. She wanted everything to be just right, because she knew what was coming.
The shuffling step was audible as soon as the elevator doors opened. It was probably Frieda’s imagination, but even the way the key turned in the lock sounded melancholy. Jason came through the door with a sigh, and Frieda held him in her arms in a deep bear hug for a long time before she released him and escorted him to the kitchen. They each drank their coffee in silence for a few minutes. Frieda tried to be supportive, but she had to get dressed to leave for her night shift at the hospital in 15 minutes, and the baby would be waking up from her nap any second.
Finally Jason spoke. “Do you ever get the feeling you’re cursed?”
“No, never,” Frieda said.
“I would say that by nature I’m pretty optimistic. Would you agree?”
Frieda smiled at Jason sympathetically. “Honey, you are so many wonderful things. A great husband. A wonderful father. An excellent story teller. A more than passable cook. But I would not say you’re a cup-half-full kind of guy.”
“Well, I think I’m a pretty positive person. I truly do. But lately I’ve been thinking I’m jinxed.”
Jason walked over to the bookshelf in the living room and pulled a chumash off the shelf.
“Let’s take a peek at this week’s parsha, shall we? What is it again, Bechukotay?”
“That’s what the synagogue bulletin said,” Frieda offered.
“I believe that Bechukotay contains the tochacha, that lovely curse that God places on the Children of Israel when they don’t follow his ways,” Jason said, flipping through the pages. “Let’s see what we can find in the parsha.
“So it says here that if you don’t observe God’s commandments, vetam larik cochachem, your strength will be used in vain. No wonder my job search is going so badly!”
“You are a very dramatic man,” Frieda said.
“It goes on to say that if you don’t heed God’s words, uzeratem larik zrachem, ve-achaluhu oyveychem, you will sow your seeds in vain, for your enemies will eat them. Is there a better definition of paying your taxes but no longer qualifying for unemployment benefits than that?”
“I don’t know, Honey. That sounds like a bit of a stretch,” Frieda said. “I don’t know if the Internal Revenue Service and the US Department of Labor really qualify as your enemies.”
“Oh yeah? Well it says here beshivri lachem matey lechem ve-afu eser nashim lachmechem betanur echad vehayshivu lachmechem bamishkal, va-achaltem lelo tisba-u, when I break for you the staff of bread 10 women will bake for you bread in one oven, and they will bring back your bread by weight, you will eat and not be satisfied. Can you find a better warning that I would put on a lot of weight, even though I eat like a bird?”
“Seriously? You are reading that completely backwards. The pasuk is suggesting that people will starve and not be satisfied, not that they’re going to get fat from eating too many Frosted Flakes while watching reruns of The Office.”
“OK, OK, maybe you’ve got me there, but it also says that if you don’t shape up, God will give you shachefet, burning lesions. I would say that the rash I have on my back fits that description nicely, thank you very much. Let’s face it, I am cursed.”
“Jason, I’m not sure that a mild case of eczema on your back qualifies as shachefet. I would think that a plague of biblical proportion might need more than a little moisturizer to go away.”
“Still, you can’t deny that a lot of things have gone wrong for me lately,” Jason said. “Can you tell me definitively that I’m not cursed?”
“Actually, I would say exactly the opposite,” Frieda said, grabbing the chumash from Jason. I would say that you are quite blessed. And I aim to prove it.
“Before the curse you quoted in the parsha, I believe God bestows a blessing upon the Israelites if they follow his commandments. Are you familiar with it?”
“I believe I’ve heard mention of it,” Jason offered.
“It says right here that if you follow God’s decrees and observe his laws then va-achaltem yashan noshan, veyashan mipney chadash totsiyu. You will eat very old grain, and remove the old to make way for the new. That definitely applies to you. You have some pretzels and chips in the pantry that have been there for years, and I’m constantly throwing away old milk in the fridge to make way for those with expiration dates that aren’t quite as scary.”
“I’m not sure that is what the blessing means,” Jason said.
“You’re right,” Frieda agreed. “I think that the pasuk means that there will be abundance. And no one is going hungry here. We have everything that we need and then some.”
“Then there’s the sentence about pursuing your enemies. It says veradfu michem chamisha, five of you will pursue 100. Clearly that is a reference to the bug spray you used on the ants in the living room last week. With one spray you wiped out an entire colony.”
“Again, I’m not sure that is the interpretation that the text intended.”
“Perhaps, but clearly it means that you will be in control of your life, and obviously you are. This job search thing is just a small bump in the road. You know that if we could look into a crystal ball and see the not-too-distant future, you will be gainfully employed before you know it.”
“I suppose,” Jason said.
“And finally, it says in the parsha, ufaniti aleichem vehifrayti etchem, vehirbeyti etchem vahakimoti et briti itchem. I will turn My attention to you, I will make you fruitful and increase you, and I will establish my covenant with you.” Frieda went into the second bedroom and came back with Emma, who had just woken from her nap. She looked at Emma and then looked at Jonah. “Any questions?”
“No, I guess not. When it comes to Emma, and to you, I have to agree. I am definitely blessed.”
Emma smiled. “Good, I’m glad I made my point. Now I have to go to work. I don’t want you to feel too cursed, but I believe there is a rather nasty diaper to change.”
“Doesn’t the curse in the parsha say velo ariyach bireyach nichochem I will no longer savor your satisfying aromas?”
Frieda smiled. “I really don’t see any way you can make that apply to our present situation, no matter how much you wrestle with the text.”
“I suppose not.”
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.
By Larry Stiefel