Baruch’s Curse

(A Reflection based upon Matthew 20:1-16)

In this post I would like to share with the ancient Hassidic tale of a man named Baruch.   Baruch was a faithful and orthodox Jew who lived on a small plot of land not far from where the forest met the desert.    Every day, Baruch rose and before even setting a single foot on the ground he would say his prayers to God.    It would easily be a half an hour before he gave thanks for all the many blessings brought with the new morning.  For 60 years, Baruch awoke in exactly the same manner.

If you or I saw Baruch and how meager his existence was, we would wonder what he could possibly be spending so much time praying for.   His house was barely a room.   It stood about ten foot by ten foot and had dirt floors and earthen walls.   In one small room that he shared with his wife, he ate and he slept in some of the harshest desert conditions.   It was a constant battle with snakes, scorpions, and other desert pests to keep the outside from completely taking over the inside.

The roof was crafted together with dried thatch and only looked like a barrier between the elements and the inside.    When it rained the water would drip from a dozen spots, and soon puddles of mud would form across his home.   This was seldom a problem, however, as it seldom rained.

As a matter of fact, the sun had scorched the life out of virtually everything in sight of Baruch’s home.    There was a thin, orange dust that covered virtually all of his house, even Baruch himself.    To see Baruch, one would see a tired and withered man.   His skin was wrinkled like leather and his hands were covered in calluses.

Every day was the same for Baruch in his dust covered existence.   After his prayers, he would roll over and kiss his wife, who was equally as tired and leathered as he.   Without much hesitation he would dress, and within minutes he would leave his house for the fields.    He was hired help, and somehow each day he managed to work as hard as the youngest in the fields.  Everyone knew Old Baruch, and in the end, he was counted as one of the honorable and decent men of his community.

Although he was without children because his wife could not conceive, he was blessed beyond measure.   Baruch is Hebrew for Blessing, and as far as Baruch was concerned he lived a life worthy of that name.  

He had a small, but healthy goat.   He was Blessed.   He was healthy and his body was growing old slowly.   He was truly blessed.  He was married to the love of his life, who loved him unconditionally.    He was truly and unquestionably blessed.

Slowly, Baruch did come face to face with some worries. With each passing season he was finding it harder and harder to keep up with the younger workers in the field.   He was sure that one morning he would arrive at the field, and be sent home in exchange for a young man more able, and perhaps more eager.    His wife was also finding it harder to manage.   There was less and less food, and the work became harder as the body grew older.    She even started to have a cough that she was unable to shake.

One morning, as he said his prayer and offered his blessings, his mind started to wander.   He realized how tenuous his life had become, and slowly his heart filled with sadness.  Eventually that sadness turned his prayer into pleading.   “God, why is this life so hard?” He asked in part anger part frustration.

As soon as the last words of his pleadings were made, something strange happened.  The house was quickly consumed with an all encompassing white light.   No believing his eyes, he tried to nudge his wife awake to no avail.   Soon, Baruch was scared.   What had he done to evoke such an incredible spectacle?  He remained unmoving and terrified.

Almost as quickly as it came the light subsided and there in its place stood an Angel of the Lord.   As you can imagine, Baruch was in full out shock and awe.   He sat on the edge of his sleeping mat, unable to move or even speak.  It was the angel that eventually broke the silence.

“The Lord has heard his child,” the angel said.  “He has heard your cries, and he has seen your heart.    He has watched you and how you have lived, and his heart is warmed.   The Lord has blessed you, but it is his desire to bless you EVEN more fully.   He wants to do for you what he did for your ancestor Abraham. Therefore, make any three requests that you will of God, and he will be pleased to give them to you. There is only one condition: your neighbor will get a double portion of everything that is bequeathed to you.”  With those final words and incredible gift hanging in the air, the angel disappeared.

After a few moments of disbelief, the man finally managed to awaken his wife.   After trying to convince his wife of the other-worldly visitor to no avail, she demanded that Baruch prove it.   Together the couple fell to their knees and gave blessing and thanksgiving to the Lord.   When they were complete, Baruch raised his eyes towards heaven, and asks the Lord for a thousand heads of livestock.   No sooner did he utter the words than his home was surrounded by a herd of animals like no other.

For days, they gave unending thanks to the Lord.    They knew what the animals meant for their livelihood.   In an instant, the slow stiffening of their joints was not quite as scary.   Their future was a little less uncertain.    There was a way to get the nagging cough fixed.   In a few days and with the right treatment the cough quickly disappeared. He was blessed and he knew it.

After a week of his new found wealth, Baruch decided to take a walk and survey this great flock of animals that he now owned.     He slowly made his way around his property until finally choosing to rest at the top of a large hill that offered views for miles.    It was in that spot that his mind changed.    

There off in the distance he noticed another piece of property with what appeared to be twice as many animals.   He knew in an instant that it was the land of his neighbor.    His smile soon faded.    He had not liked this man. They had grown up together, and met as children.  He was not a Jew.   He was a foreigner.   He dressed different.   He had a weird tinge to his voice.   He slurred his R’s and his L’s when he talked.   For crying out loud, he even smelled differently, and there he sat with twice the number of sheep and cows that he had.

For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, Baruch was beside himself.   He was upset, mad, and everything seemed a bit less rosy.   It wasn’t until he was in bed in the dark that he started to allow his anger and frustration to fade.   He remembered the visit by the angel, and soon his thoughts about that pesky neighbor faded.    He found himself contemplating what he would pray for next.

In the silence of the night his mind wandered across all the dreams he had.   He could pray for a bigger house.   Maybe he would choose to have a bigger house with one whole room filled with diamonds and rubies.    He smiled as he thought about replacing his little house, even if he saw it as a perfect home for so long.    He thought about the exotic tiles and the exotic woods that would grace every corner of his house.

For a moment he had decided that the new, giant compound of a home would be his choice.    Just as he was about to utter the words, his eye glanced at his sleeping wife.    She was his best friend for so long.   She was simply the most beautiful woman that he had ever met in the many, many years that he had been alive.    He smiled at how blessed he was to have her.   In that moment he thought it might be nice to say a blessing for her.

He knew exactly what she would want.   She would want a child.   It was her dream to have a child to mother but her body was unwilling.   Now she is too old to bear a child.   She was too old, before you brought God into the mix.   Silently, he prayed that his wife would have a child, and as he said it he slowly drifted to sleep.

It wasn’t long after he finished his next morning prayers that his wife awoke and she knew instantly that a child was alive inside of her.    The pair of them danced, sang, and celebrated this wondrous miracle that had befallen them.   Could they know a more complete joy?   God was so great that even in their tired years he would provide them with a child.   Truly they were blessed.  

For the next nine months their feet rarely touched the ground.   They smiled, they laughed, and they felt like they were twenty years old again.   They made sure their little house was perfect for their little visitor.   If they thought they were blessed before, they certainly knew it for sure  now.  

Finally, the day of the birth arrived.   After several hours of labor, Baruch and his wife were proud parents of a beautiful little girl.   She had the face of a cherub.   She was perfect in all ways.   The named her Nava, which is Hebrew for beautiful.  They quickly prepared to present the beautiful child to the community as is the tradition of the Jews.

Finally the day had arrived, and Baruch and his wife gathered the child and began the trek to the synagogue.   As they walked through the village they both beamed with Joy.    This beautiful child they held in their arms was a gift of God, and they wanted the world to see.   They prayed without ceasing on that trip as they had done since the moment the child was born.

As they stood at the front of the synagogue with all of his neighbors gathered, Baruch rose and held up the beautiful child.    In a voice ringing with joy he sang out; “The Lord has blessed me and my wife beyond measure.   On this day, we present our daughter Nava, a child of our old age.   Like Abraham and Sarah, we too have been blessed in our old age.   Today we celebrate the goodness of God!”   The gathered community erupted in cheers at this great miracle that had found its way to their midst.

Baruch had barely stopped speaking when a voice from the back of the synagogue called out; “God is truly great, and this community is truly blessed.   Not only on this day do we gather and celebrate the miracle of Baruch’s daughter, we also celebrate the birth of my sons!”   In the slurred “R’s” and “L’s”, Baruch new who was speaking, well before he turned to see  his hated neighbor holding up twin boys.   In an instant the community’s cheers move to a whole new level, but Baruch is filled with rage.

He looks at his neighbor and his heart is full with rage and contempt.    That smelly, good for nothing foreigner has stolen his moment.   He looks at the boys and he realizes that that lowly good for nothing man will have an exponentially easier life with two boys, then he will have with his girl.  

They will grow and tend his two thousand cattle.    Nava will grow and serve another man.    As he stood there his anger grew.   He was mad at the foreigner.   He was mad at Nava being a girl.   He was mad at his wife.     He grew angrier with each passing moment.    Eventually he figured out a way to sneak out of the celebration and looked for a place to hide away and stew.

After several hours he found himself on that hill which overlooked his neighbor’s property and the anger was real and it was intense.    After sitting in silence for a while, he decided what he had to do.     Right there at the top of the hill he fell down to his knees and started praying.   He began, as he always did, thanking God for his blessings, and when he was through he was ready for his third and final wish.  With his arms outstretched he raised his head to heaven and prayed that God would gouge out his right eye.

In that moment, the light returned and in it was revealed the angel of the Lord once again standing before him.     This time the angel stood silent for what seemed like an eternity.  “Why?” was the only question for the man that the angel could muster.  Still full of rage, Baruch’s reply was simple;  “I cannot,  I will not, watch that man….  I cannot stand to see him be so blessed.    I will gladly give half of my sight, just to know that he will never, ever, be able to look upon what he has.’

They both stood on that hill looking at each other in silence.   After what seemed like an eternally long time, the angel lowered his head, and said; “No, God is full of Mercy, this is something he will not do.”    As he turned from the vengeful old man, he added a final comment “Know this…in this moment you have not only brought shame to yourself, but sadness to the very heart of God.”   With that the angel disappeared, leaving Baruch behind.    Baruch remained there, on the hilltop, full of rage.

I am not sure if there is a better story, or set of images to relay the very point that Jesus was making in this parable found in Matthew 20:1-16, than this one.    The story of the 11th hour worker receiving the same as the first, doesn’t make us happy.   Jesus tells us that the workers started late, and by our standards they don’t deserve to make as much as those who started early.   Yet, Jesus tells us that this is not how things work.   Jesus tells that God’s economy is different from ours.  His blessings are his blessings, for him to bestow as he pleases.

As we move through this passage, let us not fool ourselves into thinking this is simply a story on the proper forms of wage distribution or some socialist mumbo jumbo.  Its more than that.    It’s a reminder of a curse that we each carry.   We all carry Baruch’s curse.    We are blessed beyond measure, but we miss them because we too busy standing on a hill observing what everyone else has.  (Baruch’s Curse… The Blessing’s Curse)

Baruch failed, like so many of us do, to see the blessings of God’s gift.   In his pride, his envy, his jealously, and his rage, Baruch lost sight of those blessings.    His perfect home became something less than perfect.    A thousand sheep was no longer enough.    His child was now second best.   He looked upon his wife and saw flaw.   In his anger and his jealously he broke God’s heart.

Baruch’s story serves as a reminder that often we do the same thing.    We come to the Church and we learn to celebrate and give thanks for our blessings, yet as soon as we leave we start wishing our gifts were as big as our neighbors.  We look around and we start looking at them wondering why they have it so easy.    We don’t want it this way.

We decide they don’t deserve it.   They didn’t work as hard as we work.    They are choosing to act in ways that make no sense.   They roll their “R’s” and their “L’s”.  They won’t act like us.  They won’t live by our rules.   In the end, their blessings seem so much better than ours.   So quickly we forget, that as we sit on our hills cursing our neighbor, God’s heart breaks – over and over and over.

 “Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

I look around and I see a community that is at times broken almost beyond recognition.   We spend all our time wanting, fighting, and preserving our fair share.   We want what is coming to us and we will destroy any one who stands in our way.    We call ourselves compassionate people, but instead of praying that everyone would know the security of not worrying about their health, security, or their jobs…we chant “let them die” when we start thinking that someone could get more than we do.

 We cringe at the thought of someone having an easy way.   We want people to fight, and work and struggle as hard as we do, and get less.  We call our blessings blessings only when they look like that compared to what our neighbor has.    We don’t like the idea of God blessing the man who found faith in the last moments of his life, as equally as those of us who have spent decades walking in the faith.

Baruch reminds me of how I fall short.  In hearing Baruch’s story, I think of how often I have failed to stop long enough to consider the beauty and the blessing around me, and I am filled with shame.    I think about the times when I have acted like Baruch, and I cringe.    I look away when asked to consider the many times I have criticized, judged, or broken God’s heart over the way I approach my neighbor and my life. 

In the end, and in the story of the 11th hour workers, I consider  all these things, and I can give thanks.    I give thanks without ceasing that all of this is on God’s economy, and not my own.    I pray that somewhere along the way that you and I will find the strength necessary to unclench our fists, and find a way off the mountain.

(The image is Old Man Leaning on a Stick, A Sketch by Igor V. Babailo)
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