ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה, את הברכה אשר תשמעון אל מצות ה' אלקיכם אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום, והקללה אם לא תשמעו אל מצות ה' אלקיכם.
“Look, I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing for when you will listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d that I am commanding you today, and the curse if you will not listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d.”
The verse begins with the word re’ei – look, which speaks in singular form, as if addressing just one person. But then the verse continues with lifneichem – before you, speaking in plural form. This requires an explanation.
Further in the parsha the Torah says: “You are children of Hashem your G-d.” Rav Meir and Rav Yehuda have differing views about this statement. Rav Yehuda says: “When you conduct yourself as befits children to their father you are considered children, and when you do not conduct yourself as befits children you are not considered children.” Rav Meir disagrees: “Whether it is this way or that way you are considered children.” How do we understand this argument? No one can argue that a son is not a son; it is a fact. How can these two sages argue over a fact?
It says in Tehillim: “Afterwards and beforehand I created you.” The Midrash comments: “If a person conducts himself properly, then he is told: ‘Your creation preceded the creation of the world.’ But if he doesn’t conduct himself properly he is told: ‘You were last in creation.’” This Midrash is quite puzzling. Man was created on Friday after the entire world was already complete. This is a fact that doesn’t change according to the person’s behavior.
We can understand this with the following parable:
Once upon a time there was a mighty emperor who ruled many countries. In most of these countries the emperor was respected and admired, but there was one distant country where the people had hardly heard of the king. They were primitive, simple villagers who lived a backward lifestyle and did not pay tribute to the king. The king decided to send his son to that faraway country with a special mission to educate the population. One of the local inhabitants was charged with the task of helping the prince fulfill his mission by showing him around and serving as liaison between the prince and the community.
The prince prepared extensively for this important mission, and then set out on the long journey to that distant place. When he finally reached his destination, he arrived at the home of the contact-person who was supposed to be his host. The person welcomed him warmly and showed him to his room. He urged him to take off his princely garments and take a nap.
When the prince removed his elegant robes, the host was mesmerized by their beauty. While the prince slept, the simpleton secretly put on the royal garments and decided that they suited him quite well. When the prince awoke, he asked him to please let him wear these royal robes for one day. The prince couldn’t refuse the request of his host and agreed. That is how it happened that the simple villager strutted through the streets of the town with royal garments, while the prince wore simple clothes for the day.
When the townspeople saw the royally-dressed person, they assumed that he was the prince whose arrival they had anticipated for weeks. They accorded him royal honor, and the simpleton was quite flattered. Nobody so much as looked at the real prince. After receiving such honor that day, the simple villager decided that he would continue acting as if he were the prince. Why give up the tremendous honor if he had the option to continue playing the part? In order to make sure that the real prince wouldn’t undermine his new position, he enslaved the prince and treated him with disdain. The prince begged to get his garments back, but the simpleton laughed in his face. The townspeople scorned the simply-dressed beggar who claimed to be the prince.
Naturally, the captive prince was unable to fulfill his mission under such circumstances. Several months went by and the king began to worry. What happened to his son? Why doesn’t he write, and why did he not receive any favorable reports about the improvements taking place in that distant country? The king sent several letters to the address where the prince was being held captive, but the illiterate host – for all his play-acting skills – was unable to read the letters and he simply discarded them. When the king received no response to his letters he was really alarmed and decided to send his trusted servant to see what was going on there.
When the servant arrived to that distant country he saw someone dressed as the prince, but he couldn’t recognize him. Could the prince really have changed so drastically in such a short time? He struck up a conversation with the “prince” and he saw right away that something was very wrong. The person wearing the royal garments spoke like a simple villager, without grace or refinement. This couldn’t be the prince!
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Why, I am the prince!” the charlatan replied. “Don’t you see my royal robes? Don’t you see the insignia on my cape?”
But the king’s servant was not fooled. “You are not the prince!” he declared. “How did you procure these garments? Where is the real prince?”
As they argued, the door suddenly opened and the real prince appeared. Although he was dressed like a slave, the king’s servant recognized him immediately. They fell into each others arms and wept. The prince told the servant everything that happened from the day he arrived, and described the physical suffering and emotional anguish he must bear every single day of captivity.
This parable is the story of our lives. Hashem sends the neshama to this world with an important mission, to spread His Name in this world and bring glory to Hashem’s kingdom. But in order for the neshama to be able to live in this world, he must be accompanied by a physical body. The duty of the body is to enable the soul to fulfill its mission. But upon arriving to this world, the physical body takes over the neshama and keeps her captive. Instead of being the neshama’s servant and aide, the body parades around in the royal garments of the soul, serving its own desires and wants. The soul can’t fulfill its mission and suffers terribly. Hashem, the mighty King, sees that His mission is not being fulfilled. He tries to send messages to the soul through words of Torah, but the body has taken charge of the soul and doesn’t let the message through. Finally, Hashem sends a personal messenger to the soul to ensure that His message would get through.
This is the meaning of what Rav Yehuda said: “When you conduct yourself as befits children to their father you are considered children, and when you do not conduct yourself as befits children you are not considered children.” When you fulfill the mission of your soul, the mission for which you were sent here, then you are considered children of Hashem. When you fulfill your mission, then you are a true prince. But if you do not fulfill the King’s mission, and instead you fulfill the whims of the simpleton, the body, then you are not considered children. You are not the prince!
Rav Meir disagrees, because unlike in our little parable, in real life the soul and the body are a combined entity that cannot be separated. If the soul would leave the body the person’s life would end. Therefore Rav Meir maintains that we are still considered children of Hashem, because the part within us that is the prince, child of Hashem, endears us to Him even if the other part of us – the body – overtakes our behavior. “For Hashem does not desire the death of the [sinner] but for him to return from his ways and live.” Hashem wants us to live, and therefore He doesn’t send away the errant servant who keeps our soul hostage.
This is also the meaning of the Midrash: “If a person conducts himself properly, then he is told: ‘Your creation preceded the creation of the world.’ But if he doesn’t conduct himself properly he is told: ‘You were last in creation.’” If the person fulfills his life’s mission properly, then he preceded creation, because the soul, which is a spark of Hashem, existed long before creation. On the other hand, if the person does not fulfill his mission and his body dominates the soul, then he is told that even the insects preceded him in creation; after all, the body of man was the last to be created.
Now we can understand the wording of the verse. “Look, I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse…” The verse begins in the singular and then switches to plural form. “Look,” Hashem says. I am speaking to one man, to every individual, but each person is really two – a body and a soul. I am giving before you – before both of you, the body and the soul, the ability to choose a blessing or a curse! Both of you must join together to fulfill My will. If the soul will lead the body then your life will be a blessing, but if the body leads the soul you are choosing the opposite of blessing.
The month of Elul is almost here. It is time to make a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual reckoning. It is time to ask ourselves: “Who am I? Am I a body or a soul?” The soul is a prince, a child of Hashem. The body is just a servant with the duty of providing the prince with all of his needs. We must do a spiritual self-check and ask ourselves: “How much have I done to fulfill my life’s mission? Is my body ruling my soul or am I a real prince?”
If we will enable the prince within us to fulfill its royal mission, we will have chosen “blessing” and we will be inscribed for a sweet new year.