Shabbat Re’eh: Blessing, and Curse, and Charlottesville

This Shabbat our parashah begins with words that are both simple and profound:
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:
אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתכֶם, הַיּוֹם. blessing, if you hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, which you are given this day;
וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. and curse, if you do not hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, but instead turn aside from the way which I show you this day, and go after other gods, which you don’t even know. (Deut.11.26-28)
Simple, because most of us can tell the difference between a blessing and a curse pretty quickly. Yet how difficult it is to understand why some see blessing in what others know to be a curse. Just looking is apparently not going to be enough, and so Moshe goes on to refer to a most interesting pedagogical ritual:
וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל. When HaShem your God brings you into the land you are about to enter, you shall set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.  (Deut. 11.29)
The way that this works is an unforgettable visual and physical lesson. When the Israelites arrive in the Land of Israel, they are to travel to the area of the city of Shekhem, in central Israel. Nearby they will find two mountains, one called Gerizim and one Ebal. Half of the Israelites are to stand upon each mountain, with the Levites standing in between. The Levites recite the curses that will fall upon those who are not faithful to our people’s Covenant with G*d, and the people say amen, and then the Levites recite the blessings of holding fast to that Covenant, and once again the people respond amen.
 
What do these two mountains have to do with it? They are chosen because they are indelible visual images of blessing and curse: Mt Gerizim still today is lush and fertile, green and lovely, which Mt Ebal is barren, dry and rocky. And yet they are two mountains that are located right next to each other!
A student of the Rambam – Maimonides – traveled in the Land of Israel in the 14th century and reported that while Ebal was dry, “seventy springs of water flow from Gerizim.” The Hebrew word for a pool of water such as that formed by a spring is bereykhah. The word for “blessing” is berakhah. Gerizim was overflowing with the blessing of life-giving water.
That which overflows with life and sustenance, that which supports growth and beauty, is a blessing. Whatever is coming out of Ebal, big strong mountain that it is, does not support life, and sustenance and beauty do not grow from it. You can’t grow a blessing from a curse.
It is not clear how some of our fellow citizens assert that there is blessing where we most assuredly see a curse, how some can find sustenance in terror and murder, and somehow feel justified. But it is very clear that some of the elected leaders of our United States are causing curses to take root and spread where blessing would have been as easy to nurture – and insisting that they see nothing wrong.
Let’s be clear: what happened in Charlottesville was white supremacist terror inflicted on innocent people; it was a living, ugly curse. Those who opposed it asserted with beautiful courage the reality of blessing in our lives. They were a blessing.
Those who spread hate will in the end be as barren as Mt Ebal, and their names and acts will be as curses. Those who oppose hate will be remembered for blessing, as our tradition says: zikhronam l’vrakha, their memory is a blessing.
Charlottesville is not and will not be unique; but as many times as hatred shows itself, encouraged by irresponsible, cynical, evil people, just as many times you and I will rally against it. All of us, each in our own way, can and must hold fast to the mitzvot that keep us tethered to blessing.
The mitzvah of gathering as we did at City Hall last Sunday to remember and to rededicate ourselves to resistance;
the mitzvah of writing letters to Federal and State officials insisting on human and civil rights;
the mitzvah of looking out for each other, forgiving each other just because we need to magnify love, not anger, right now.

 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other
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Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing and Being Seen

This week we read from parashat Re’eh. The parashah’s name translates to the imperative “see!” or “behold!”. We are urged to see that before us lies blessing and curse, and also (in a further development of the connotations of the verb) to “see”, and “understand”, that it is up to us to discern one from the other on “the path that I [G-d] set you upon”. (Devarim 11.28)

So watch your step.
A parashah like this might remind us of…
…hiking through the forest, where rocky footing might cause you to wrench an ankle if you’re not looking.
…walking into a situation at work and seeing for the first time that there’s a problem that you never noticed before.
…feeling sad or grumpy all day until you are suddenly in the presence of someone you love, and understand how blessed you are.
Jewish tradition sets a great deal of value upon taking care to see, in all its meanings, before acting. In the Talmudic tractate Pirke Avot it is written, “Who is wise? the one who can see what a possible result [literally, what is being born].” It is true that, often, to see is to feel compelled to respond: when we see each other in need, we want to help. When we see suffering we seek to alleviate it. And when we see joy, the heart lifts.
There are many things that we see. There are also many things that we think we have seen, and have not; things that we have not seen but can vividly imagine; and that which we long to see, but will not. The Haftarah for this Shabbat, from Isaiah 54, invited our ancestors, in the midst of the experiences of occupation, destruction and exile, to imagine something unseen:
I will lay gems as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires.
Your battlements will be rubies, and your gates precious stones,
the whole encircling wall of gems. (Isaiah 54.11-12)
In the Talmud there is an ancient story of a skeptic who studied this text under Rabbi Yokhanan in a beit midrash, a study hall, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but did not believe it.
He mocked the teaching, saying  “even gems of small size are not easily found!”
Some time later the skeptic was on a ship and saw a vision; two angels were carving a giant gem.
The skeptic asked the angels what they were doing, and they replied, using Rabbi Yokhanan’s words exactly, “we are preparing this for the gates of Jerusalem in the future.”
The amazed skeptic returned to the Rabbi in the study hall and cried out to him, “teach, my master, for you teach wonderfully! I have seen that which you have taught, and can say that it is true.”
The Rabbi turned to the skeptic with a scowl. “And if you had not seen it, you would not have believed it?”
And he placed his eye upon the skeptic, who was forthwith turned into a pile of bones.  (Bava Batra 75a)
The reaction of the Rabbi seems disturbing. Does he kill the skeptic? Such wonder working is clearly beyond today’s Rabbis. Perhaps more likely, something about the exchange between the skeptic and the Rabbi reduced the skeptic to inconsequentiality. Consider:
In our parashah, the first verse commands us to see. The skeptic, demoralized and unwilling to see the possibility of hope in his situation, mocked those who taught others to see it. This story underscores our ethical responsibility to make that effort to re’eh, “see!” and “understand!” what we are seeing, and what is likely to be born out of that which we see.
And in the final verses from this parashah, we are reminded that we are also seen: “Three times a year…you shall go up to the place G-d has chosen and be seen before ה your G-d”. Devarim 16.16) We are not the center of the universe; as we see, so we are seen, each from our own perspective. So much that we mean to be is misunderstood in the seeing; that is why the ethic of marat ayin, “that which presents to the eye” is such an important concept to remember.
The Rabbi merely saw the skeptic for who he was. Neither he, nor the skeptic’s disbelief, was what turned him into a pile of bones; he did that to himself, by making himself useless as a member of a community that strives to see, and needs encouragement from each other as we try our level best to understand.

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.