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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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.