A Time for Curses

Ki Sovo

When trying to condition a mode of behavior there are two primary methods one can employ. Either one ‎can provide a stimulus that strengthens and encourages the behavior, or, in stark contrast, one can punish ‎deviant behavior which weakens attitudes of non compliance.‎‏ ‏Punishment is authoritative imposition of ‎something undesirable or unpleasant, or the removal of something desirable or pleasant in response ‎to behavior deemed unacceptable.‎

  • If a dog “sits” on command and this behavior is followed by the reward of a treat, then the treat ‎serves to positively reinforce the behavior of “sitting.”‎
  • A teenager comes home after curfew and the parents take away a privilege, such as cell phone ‎usage. The removal of the phone motivates the child to return home earlier.‎

Simply put, reinforcers serve to increase behaviors whereas punishments serve to decrease behaviors; ‎thus, positive reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to attain, and negative reinforcers are ‎stimuli that the subject will work to avoid or to end. ‎

Often both procedures are available to correct behavior and authorities, parents and educators have to ‎select between the two. Generally positive reinforcement is a healthier approach than its counterpart ‎negative punishment. Yet even though both may achieve the same goal promising that the correct ‎behavior is attained, there are risks in both of these methodologies. Negativity, often the more effective in ‎the short term suffers from the decrease of pleasure and creates a strained environment. Positive ‎reinforcement may not always be successful in engendering the results wanted, the reward may not be ‎sufficiently appealing. A balance needs to be struck by any authority to both stimulate and penalize in order ‎to ensure correct conduct and performance. ‎

Six tribes ascended to the summit of Mount Gerizim and six to the top of Mount Eival; the Priests, Levites ‎and Holy Ark stood below in the middle. The Levites turned their faces towards Mount Gerizim and began ‎with the blessing: “Blessed be the man who does not make a graven or molten image…,” and all the tribes ‎answered “Amen!” Then they turned their faces towards Mount Eival and began with the curse, saying: ‎‎“Cursed be the man who makes any graven or molten image…,” and they all responded “Amen!” The ‎Levites then turned their faces once again towards Mount Gerizim… and then towards Mount Eival… and ‎thus they proclaimed all eleven statements. (Sotah 32a)‎

The Torah has done both, it has provided Blessings for compliance and Curses for waywardness. However ‎since the positive is definitely to be favored over the negative we are led to the following question. ‎Granted that the Torah wanted to avoid being repetitious and document only one version of the events, ‎why does it choose to include only the Curses and not the Blessing? Hashem would rather shower us with ‎goodness and prosperity than the reverse, shouldn’t the Torah be more positive and record just the ‎Blessings instead of solely mentioning the Curses?‎

When a child runs into the road to fetch a ball, the two aforementioned approaches are available for the ‎parent or caregiver. Positive reinforcement: by promising the child a reward if in future she resists dashing ‎into the street. Or, punishing the infringement to correct her behavior and intimidate further infractions. A ‎caring parent would be seem to act in harsh manner and punish the child; running into the street carries the ‎danger of her darting in the path of an oncoming vehicle. This is a definite risk of lethal proportions and ‎one cannot afford to jeopardize the health of the youngster out of fear that she may be psychologically ‎harmed. Punishment too has its role to play in child-rearing. ‎

This explains why the Torah records the Curses over the Blessing. Sure the parent would rather incentivize ‎the child for not running then punish her for dashing out into the street, and a good parent will reward her ‎future obedience, but no-one can play chance with this peril. The same is true for these eleven curses ‎which were central to the morality of the Nation. Hashem would rather reward conformity than punish ‎non-compliance, but the effect of any rebelliousness would be devastating, and the Torah does not want ‎to entertain hazard. Therefore, when faced with the choice of listing the Blessing or Curses and the desire ‎to ensure acquiescence, the Torah resorts to shuddering curses to be certain the people fell into line. ‎

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