Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing Hope, Being Blessing

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Re’eh. We study a parashah named for the command “see!”

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (Devarim 11.26)

It is the second Shabbat of Consolation, a time in which our tradition urges us to lift up our heads from the searing despair of Tisha B’Av, toward the hope that we may yet be part of summoning, and living in, a better world.

What does it mean to see?

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time,
and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
– Georgia O’Keeffe

In ancient Hebrew as in our own modern language, to see is to notice, to recognize, to understand, and to acknowledge.

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates

“See” in our parashah urges us to examine our lives and our choices and to understand that to follow our Jewish path means acting upon the world, as what our tradition calls co-creators. We call this doing mitzvot – an ethical path that will bring you blessing.

The blessing is to see that you will not succeed at all things. It is to understand that the media will not pick up a good deed of yours and you’ll be famous. It is to recognize that that you will not be thanked (the higher levels of tzedakah are anonymous).

The blessing is that you will be able to look at your life and see that it is good. You will see and understand the relationship between your acts and the world that you live in and co-create. It is a blessing on that day when you see your life clearly if you can see that you held tight to your integrity and your vision of the good life, and no matter what happened, you did your best to do good. The blessing is that you will feel grateful for all the good you were able to do, and you will feel content in yourself.

We are encouraged – no, commanded – by our tradition to lift our eyes at this time of year, to look ahead and to seek the horizon of hope. How is this even possible right now, in this world of misery in which we live?

The guidance of our Jewish tradition makes the answer simple: look for the single mitzvah, the simple act, that you can do in this moment, which saves you from existential despair with the immediacy of one need, one hurt, one vulnerability to which you can respond.

It’s all we really have, anyway: this moment right now. Be kind to someone. Notice someone. See, recognize, and understand all the opportunities you have, right where you are, to be a blessing.

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Shabbat Emor: With All Your Heart

Nobody sees a flower really; 

it is so small. 

We haven’t time, 

and to see takes time – 

like to have a friend takes time.

  – Georgia O’Keefe

Parashat Emor begins with a series of commands regarding the priests and their behavior: lo y’tama’ b’amav, they shall “not become defiled among their people”. (Lev. 21.1) Priests, who are set up as an elite among the people, must live up to the expectations of the position. This is a very ancient idea and still so relevant: when people occupy positions of high authority, we expect them to behave accordingly, and by that we mean ethically – and we are especially disappointed in them when they do not.

There’s an ethical dilemma, though, in that expectation: we who are not in that high position might come to see our own behavior as less significant. We might even say that it’s no big deal if we break a law, compared to if the priest/king/president/mayor does. 

Jewish tradition teaches differently. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, the Rabbis sought ways to keep our religious (which includes ethical) traditions relevant even without the institutions they had been based upon and grew from. Jewish teaching emphasizes that each of us can defile not only ourselves, but our people, when we act unethically. It takes the heart right out of the community and slowly but surely, that community declines into cynicism. 

No – rather than give up the institutions that support our acts and teachings, they brilliantly interpreted them:

No more sacrifices? the Rabbis taught that G*d welcomed the “service of the heart”, and that our obedience to the ethical teachings of our tradition would be just as acceptable an offering – as a gift of thanksgiving for the gift of life, or as an offering of atonement.

No more Temple altar? our tables in our homes shall become our altar, they said, and each of our homes a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary”. Our homes are to echo and reinforce our ethics.

No more priests? the Rabbis pointed out, G*d declares in the Torah that “you shall all be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people.” (Ex.19.6) Without a central Jewish institution, it was – and is – up to each of us to maintain the ethical standards that were to be upheld by the priests.

It is clear that we are to see the ethical commands of Judaism as incumbent upon us all equally. And these mitzvot are that which will keep us from becoming “defiled among the people”. But how to keep track of all the specifics in the way we are meant to behave, not only judging others but ourselves, in a life so full of distraction? How to, as the familiar mitzvah puts it, follow the path “with all your heart”?

The text of parashat Emor itself offers us a way to do just that: “you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete” (Lev. 23.15) Jewish tradition has developed this into an ethic of counting our days – all our days, not just these 49 between Pesakh and Shavuot. But these 7 weeks have become for us a time to deepen whatever practice we have for noticing our days, for not letting them slip by completely unexamined. When we take time each day to consider our day, we see them, and the days themselves become fuller for us, richer – and we are more able to be conscious ethical actors in our lives, rather than helplessly pulled from place to place, commitment to commitment. 

Then we are more able to act with all the heart. And that is what makes each day, and each week, “complete” in the sense of the Torah’s phrase.