It’s not what you think! But it is! #Parashat Re’eh
Deuteronomy 11: 26-28
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃ וְהַקְּלָלָ֗ה אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְסַרְתֶּ֣ם מִן־הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם…
See, this day I set before you, blessing and curse: blessing, that you listen to the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day;and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day …
This equation seems to be quite simple; There is one path that if you follow, will guide you to be blessed and there is another one that will guide to be cursed!
The only problem with that is that it is not completely right.
The Chassidic commentator Sefat Emet, says: “Note that in the blessing it says ‘that you listen’, but in the curse it says ‘if’. Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental.”
So we shall ask how to avoid incidental wrong-doing.
Torah says “אשר תשמעו… ואם לא תשמעו” – “that you listen… and if you do not listen”. Does listening ring any bells? Of course! The shema!
The statement that follows the Shema is “Ve’ahavta”. It is written: “you shall love Yah your God with all your heart”. Now, we know that in the context of Torah the word “heart” actually means “mind”. So the statement of Parashat Re’eh, that distinguishes between the blessing and the curse, is linked to our ability not just to fulfill commandments – Mitzvot – and to do the right things, but also with the obligation to be driven by the right thoughts and the right motivations. It is about the alignment of our deeds and our thoughts.
You could fulfill the Mitzvah of making Shiva calls to the mourners, while feeling obligated to do that and doing it because “that’s what we do”. Or you can fulfill the Mitzvah of making Shiva calls driven by compassion and loving kindness and real interest in the grief of your fellow. You could be constantly thinking about killing or stealing and you can certainly fulfill the mitzvah of not doing that, but we would still think that if these are your thoughts then there is some defect to your soul!
In Jewish tradition, positive and negative motivations are symbolized by the ideas of Yetzer Hatov and Yetzer Hara – the inclination to good, and the inclination to evil; commonly depicted in cartoons as the two little angels near a person’s head…
As we said, the Sefat Emet says that our “default” is good, and that evil, or wrongdoing, is an incident. But that default, according to Jewish tradition, isn’t automatic, it’s rather a result of constant practice.
The psalmist wonders [Psalms 34:13-16]:
מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב ׃נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה ׃ס֣וּר מֵ֭רָע וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ׃
12 Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 14 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
What does the person who loves life do? The Psalmist states it very clearly: it’s not only about “Sur Mera” – turn from evil, but rather about “Ase Tov” – engage in doing good, be driven by right and positive motivation: love, compassion, justice, peace.
There is something in the dichotomy of the blessing and the curse that is both concerning and encouraging. And it lies in the word “today”. “I set before you Today!” The risk of falling into wrong-doing is always there, but so is the opportunity to do good. The reason that the word “today” is there is to remind us that opportunity lies in every single thing we do. Once we understand it, then the keyword is “Re’eh”, SEE, the first word of our Torah portion, which is referring to our ability to look inwards and to recognize our motivations in every single thing we do. As we said, it is not enough to do right… Am I driven by loving kindness, compassion, the pursuit of peace, justice… Am I? Torah is not trying to make us walk on eggshells. Torah is trying to help us to look inside, it is requiring us to carefully reflect on our choices. This is not the idea of blessing and curse as abstract notions of reward and punishment. This is rather Torah encouraging us to not become a curse, and to be a blessing. Re’eh, look inside, “ turn away from evil and do good, clarify your motivations… Re’eh, look inside and embrace the challenge and the hope of being a blessing.