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)

Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing, Iran and Others

Our parashat hashavua, called Re’eh, urges us, “look!”. The Torah relates that Moshe our leader is exhorting our ancestors to take a moment to stop and really see in a deeper sense. That is, he is telling us to realize something essential about our ability to understand the implications of what we see – and how we respond.

This issue of seeing is vitally significant. After all, our salvation depended upon Moshe’s ability to see a burning bush in the wilderness, many years before. As the mystics point out, if Moshe had not stopped long enough to notice that the bush was burning but was not being consumed by the fire, he would not have heard G-d’s call.

If you stop and see something you have never seen before, you are, in that moment, ready to listen for that which you have never heard before.

And if you do not stop, do not see what is really happening, you cannot hear and obey the command set before you. 

Snap judgments based on a quick glance will not get you there. Partially seeing will only give you a garbled, incorrect hearing of what you are called upon to do. And the stakes are as high as can be:

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.

Look, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:

אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.

blessing, if you listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, which I command you today;

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 will not listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, but turn aside from the way you are commanded this day to follow, and go after other gods, which you do not even really know. (Devarim 11.26-28)

Moshe tells us here that we do have the power to choose between blessing and curse, and the way to do so is by seeing carefully, and therefore opening your eyes and ears – and heart – to the possibility of being able to hear accurately, and obey correctly.

It is easier to follow one’s first impression, more comfortable to come to one’s conclusion quickly, to leave the wilderness wandering of indecision. But the Jewish understanding of wisdom is that it is only found in looking again and deeper, staying open to what we have not yet seen – and perhaps has never been seen in the world before.

I do not often share political comments in this religious teaching, but it is also true that I am guided by the mystical insight that All is One – there is no such thing as “just politics” or “just religion”. All our best and highest acts in any sphere of life are simply our human striving to perceive G-d’s will and do it (even if we don’t use that word, debased by so many, and prefer to say “seeking to move with the flow of the universe” or “creating a sense of wholeness with the highest”). But our religious teachings are either true everywhere in our lives or they are not true teachings. 

So with that prelude I offer you this thought: our people, no matter where we live in the world, are always concerned for the fate of our State of Israel. We do not agree on how best American Jews should express their support. Shir Tikvah has stood for respectful dialogue, makhloket l’shem shamayim, when we discuss these things that we care about most. It is because I believe in looking more deeply – and arguing less than listening – and keeping my heart and mind open to learn more, that I am coming out in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as “the Iran deal”). This is why:

– It is easy to quickly see and agree with other Jews that it is too dangerous, without stopping to hear that the sanctions regime is unravelling anyway and if we do not have this deal, we are left with nothing in its place. We cannot go back to the status quo ante.

– It is easy to see the public threats Iran makes against Israel, without hearing the reports (this link from the Jewish Forward) from Iran and elsewhere that describe a much more nuanced reality.

– It is hard to read the entire text of the agreement, and then read Torah and all the commentaries, and then listen to both sides, and consult with your teachers and those who are wise, and finally come to a carefully considered decision. It is much easier to fall back into the Jewish defensive position that the world is against us and no one understands us or cares about us – but it may well be that our best way forward to is thank the President for this good start toward a safer world, and use the opening to push for the kind of cultural contacts and economic connections that will make it easier to pressure the Iran regime in the direction of becoming a good neighbor, or at least a less bad one. We have no proof that isolating a regime works, and if we look, we will see plenty of examples in world history of where it has not worked. Those who do not learn from history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.

I offer you this final thought from Jewish mysticism about the nature of good and evil as we look for the blessing and the curse regarding Iran and so many other significant decisions our government makes on our behalf, and of course, those we ourselves are called upon to make:

When Moshe says Re’eh, “see”, to the people of Israel, he is inviting them to see the true nature of evil – that it is nothing more than a distortion of Divine good. When we see it for what it really is, we have the ability to transform it into the good that it essentially is. 

May it be that our representatives have seen a path toward that which is good, and may we demand of them nothing less than a constant, careful looking, and listening, beyond the surface and the already-known, for the sake of peace in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout our precious, precious world.