Shabbat Re’eh: What Happens When You Look

Parashat Re’eh is named for our ability to see and understand:  רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה – “see, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11.26). Blessing, we are told, follows the choice to comply (literally, “listen”); curse, if we do not.

It seems so very simple and direct an expectation: look, and understand; hear, and follow. But if we have never before beheld the vision we are must see, how do we know what to look for? if we have not yet heard the melody, how do we know what to listen for? In short, what does a new way, a better choice, a healed world, look, and sound, like?

Over the past year our religious community has been seeking a way forward in response to the racial violence which, more and more, we sense all around us. We know ourselves as Jews to carry on the learned compulsion toward acting for justice – and these days echo with the divine command to act very clearly. But how are we to act? What are we listening for, and what are we looking for?

After much searching and questioning, some of us gathered for a first effort to articulate our feelings and seek a coherent way forward on Tisha B’Av. On a hot August night we considered the terrible situation of these, our days, our own sadness and confusion, and what we might gain in strength and focus from our Jewish tradition and its teachings. We decided we would meet again this past Thursday evening, last night, to discuss an article on Jewish identity and the struggle for racial justice.

Then, yesterday, we were notified of a vigil to be held at the same time as our scheduled meeting; a vigil to stand in solidarity with a family mourning their murdered boy, only nineteen and killed by white supremacists on August 10. 

It was an interesting moment. Do we sit and study about it, or do we go and see, and hear? We weren’t sure what we might be getting into.

But when we remember that Jewish tradition teaches, ““Great is study when it leads to action” (BT Kiddushin 40b), it was clear that this was a moment in which we were being invited to make a choice: to seek to see, to try to hear. And it was fine. The gathering was large; the family was grateful; the learning was immense.

We will reschedule the discussion, because we need to have it. But last night we learned that sometimes, in order to see and hear, we first have to stop talking with our mouths, and instead act with our hands, our feet, and our hearts. We looked; we saw. We learned.

This Shabbat coincides with the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the Days of Awe now only thirty days away. I invite you to use some part of this time, some few moments here and there, to join me in doing some reading about our struggle to understand how to work for racial justice as Jews. It will be our focus during some part of the High Holy Days, as we consider what we are being asked to see and understand, to hear and follow, as in these words from a High Holy Day haftarah:

ה  הֲכָזֶה, יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם, נַפְשׁוֹ; הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ, וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ–הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא-צוֹם, וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיהוָה.

Is this a worthwhile fast? afflicting the soul,bowing the head like a weeping willow, spreading sackcloth and ashes under oneself? Is this truly an acceptable day to HaShem?

ו  הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.

Is not this a worthwhile fast: to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you yourself break every yoke?

ז  הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the poor that are cast out into shelter? when you see the naked, that you give cover, and that you do not try to hide from your reality?

ח  אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ.

Then your light will shine forth as the morning, and you will find healing; you will walk in the path of justice, and the beauty of HaShem will gather you up. (Isaiah 58.5-8)

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parashat Re’eh: See Your Power to Bless

See, I set before you blessing and curse. (Dev. 11.26)

For Maimonides, the opening verse of this week’s parashah means that the choice of blessing and curse are before us. This is the proof of our free will. This question, of the meaning of human existence in a world which is immersed in G-d, has been seen by many as a paradox:

If G-d is all powerful, then we are puppets, without the ability to act unless G-d wills it.

If we have free will, then G-d’s will is not, by definition, all-powerful.

This sort of logical dilemma has driven people crazy for millennia. It may feel distant from you, but if you look at it another way, it’s actually a very familiar problem: are my actions my choice, or am I being influenced by something other than myself? The answer, we know, is yes and yes – both are true.

The implications of free choice challenge the old misunderstanding about the doctrine of reward and punishment by suggesting that sin is punished, and virtue rewarded, in a straightforward way. We are free to choose, and we deserve, therefore, to experience the consequences of our choices.

But we know that suffering in our world is not straightforward, nor easy to understand. And it is nonsense to insist that all those who suffer deserve it.

We also know that human acts do bring about both blessing and curse.

This is not only a modern philosophical problem. Already in the era of the Talmud, the verse was interpreted to mean “See, I set before you the blessing and its transmutation.” (Yonatan ben Uzziel)

The translation understands that human beings not only have the power of action for or against the good of the world, but we have another power: that of taking a blessing and transmuting it into a curse, and therefore, of taking a curse and turning it into a blessing.

The mitzvah of seeing, then, is not only to understand the impact of our power of choice, but also the power we have to destroy a blessing by our freely chosen acts. The only consolation is that we also have the power to destroy a curse, by wrestling a blessing from it.

Thus, the first word of the verse is the most important of all: see!

See your own power to challenge the strength of a curse. See your power to create blessing from despair – even your own. When you are next confronted by something that strikes you as wrong, as unethical, as evil, don’t look away; look more deeply, look for the key that will show you how to transform that curse into a blessing. If you do that, you are adding a tiny bit to the overall blessedness of the world. If you don’t, then you haven’t yet seen how important each of your choices really is.

Only when a curse is seen can it be transmuted into a blessing. See your power to choose; see the blessing your hands can bring into being.