Why do people turn to Judaism? Certainly we have lived through enough to know that being religious doesn't mean that we can avoid the spills and disappointments that festoon the road of life. A Jewish commitment doesn't automatically liberate a person from fear or anxiety or guilt, nor can it guarantee happiness or success. If Judaism can't provide those lofty goals, then what good is it? Why bother?
Today's Torah portion speaks to the kind of blessings one expects from a life lived within the context of a religious heritage. In listing a series of curses for those who flout God's will as embodied in the Torah, and a series of blessings for those who struggle to make that will their own, the Torah records one of its most famous blessings: "Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings."
What, precisely, is the Torah speaking about? And why does it use the peculiar plural form for comings and goings when the singular would seem to work just fine?
The ancient Midrash Devarim Rabbah explores that question, arriving at several worthy answers:
The first possibility understands comings and goings as referring to drawing others close to Judaism: "Rabbi Judah ben Shimon said, 'This verse refers to Moses...when he came into the world he brought nearer to God those who were far away...and when he departed from this world, he brought nearer those who were estranged." Rabbi Judah draws our attention to one of Moses' most remarkable gifts--his ability to bring out goodness in others. As a baby, he is able to draw out the kindness of the Egyptian princess, and toward the end of his life, he does the same with Reuben.
A second, anonymous, explanation sees our verse as referring to business practices. In other words, "you shall be blessed in your merchandise." Is this viewpoint reminding us that without a minimal financial security, there is little emotional or physical energy to devote to matters of the spirit and of the mind? Or, perhaps, this interpretation asserts that we will prosper, recognizing that material wellbeing is itself a great blessing--not something to be vilified out of hand.
Significant as those interpretations are, the most intriguing one, to my mind, is the first:
"Blessed shall you be in your comings," in your first coming into the world, "And blessed shall you be in your goings," in your departure from this world. In other words, the odd use of the plural is a clue that the Torah is here referring to the ultimate entrance and exit: birth and death.
Rabbi Berekiah heard this interpretation and felt the need to clarify it. After all, he argued, we already know that a person must be born and must die? So telling us that isn't adding anything new or significant? Instead, he clarifies that this verse teaches "Happy are they whose time of death is like the time of their birth. Just as at the time of their birth they are free from sin, so too at the time of their death they are free from sin."
Rabbi Berekiah points out a basic truth about life: all babies are born lovable and innocent. They begin outside of moral parameters, neither good nor bad, they simply are--a blank slate, free of corruption or hurt. As we proceed through our lives, however, we lose that innocence and that freshness. With each new experience, with every single encounter, our own responses and deeds write a legacy--either one of integrity, self-control, goodness, and holiness, or one of selfishness, laziness, and indifference.
How we are characterized at birth is fashioned by others. How we are characterized at death is in our own hands. As the Talmud says, one who is as free of sin at the time of death as at their birth has accomplished something noble and lasting indeed.
Blessed are you in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings--by living a life of concern, of fidelity to the mitzvot and to acts of lovingkindness, we leave the world better than we found it, and we leave this life with the greatest of all possessions, a good name.