Parashat Re’eh

This week’s Torah portion begins with these words, “See, this day I present before you a blessing and a curse. Blessing, that you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not obey the commandments….” (Deut.11:26-28) Why does it begin with the word “see”? The sentence would stand on its own without it. What are we to “see”?

Deuteronomy is in essence a review of where we have been. It asks us to examine our past actions as well as look ahead to the future. It requires us to have vision, the ability to “see” with all of our being in order to discern the blessings from the curses. As we get ready to enter the Land, God wants us to open our eyes and our hearts to the possibilities that lie ahead, learning from the mistakes that we made along the way.

Re’eh teaches us that each day we have the opportunity to choose. We have the choice to see the glass half empty or half full. We have the freedom to act in a way that places God at the center of all we do or to go after other gods such as money, power and secularism. We often do not take the time to stop and see, to see the hand of God in every detail. We are always looking ahead to next week, to next month and to the fulfillment of material needs. When we lose our connection the God as the source, we lose our vision and make choices that do not lead to blessings.

In the opening sentence there is an interesting grammatical inconsistency in the Hebrew. “See,” re’eh,is in the singular whereas “before you,” lifnaykhem, is in the plural. Thus it appears that Moses is saying “see” to the individual and “you” to the multitude. What are we to glean from this? Perhaps it is to connect us as individuals with Klal Yisrael. We are all interrelated and what one person does, affects the community at large. Not one of us alone can change global warming, bring peace to the Middle East or cure cancer. We are one Jewish community and on a broader scale, one human family. Too often we think that what we do has no bearing on others. Moses teaches us that our individual choices can be a blessing or a curse for the multitude.

Another curious use of words in the beginning phrase is “that” vs. “if” (asher vs. im): “Blessing, that you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not obey the commandments….” Why is one used in regard to a blessing and the other in regard to a curse? Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, in his book, Sefat Emet (see his comments on Parashat Re’eh in the abridged version translated and edited by Arthur Green, The Language of Truth), teaches that goodness exists within us by our very nature. It is therefore easier to do what is right. We have to make a conscious effort to do the wrong thing. God is giving us the benefit of the doubt “that” we will “obey the commandments” as our verse has it. Even if we have fallen away, each day, we can come back. God places before us “this day” implying each day is a new chance for each of us.

Mordechai Kaplan teaches that Judaism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but “ifistic.” In the middle of the English word life is “if”. We spend our lives looking back- if only I had done this or if only I had done that. In Hebrew however the word for life is hayyim with double yuds in the middle, representing one of the names for God. Kaplan says that if we put God in the center of our lives rather than ifs, we can live a life of meaning, and purpose with unlimited possibilities.

Victor Frankl, in his Man’s Search for Meaning, says “we who have lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread. They are proof that everything can be taken from man but one thing, to choose one’s attitude and to choose one’s own way.”

A story: Two men went out one night to explore the world. One equipped himself with a lighted torch while the other went into the darkness without any light. When the 2nd one returned he said, “wherever I went I found nothing but darkness.” But the first one said “everywhere I went, I found light.”

The choice is ours.

May God kindle in our hearts the light of Torah, the lamp of faith and the candle of service so wherever we go we may be blessed.

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Barbara Paris is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion, and student Rabbi at Choate Rosemary Hall. She also is a chaplain at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Vice President of Jewish Family Service, both in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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