In a film called “The Recruit,” each young applicant for CIA special operations is asked to respond to a series of rapid-fire questions without taking time to think about them. In this case, the recruit is asked to answer quickly, “Which would you rather do: ride on a train, feel no pain, dance in the rain?” With a slight hesitation he answers, “Dance in the rain.” Then, as he is about to leave the room the recruit turns back to the examiner and says it wasn’t the truth. The real answer is “feel no pain.”
Parashat Re’eh begins with the words “Behold I put before you today blessing and curse. The blessing – that you will listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today. The curse – that you will not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God and you will stray from the path, which I command you today to follow, after other gods you have not known.”
But then God doesn’t tell us what the blessings and curses are, and He doesn’t tell us what to do. He doesn’t tell us which to choose, as he does later in the reading of Netzavim in which we are told to choose life over death. Here, God simply puts before us “blessing and curse” and goes on to other subjects.
Although none of us can know what was going on in Moses’ mind at the time and – even more – what God was thinking, I will offer the possibility that God was giving a description of the blessing and curse to us without our realizing it. Here is blessing if you follow the mitzvot, and here is curse if you don’t and choose to follow other gods. You can have a long life that is a curse and a short one that is a blessing. It will depend on what you choose to fill it with. We are the recruits, and God is saying here are two possibilities, now choose.
How would each of us respond? Feel no pain? Or dance in the rain?
Imagine spending one’s life trying to feel no pain. Sure, no one wants to hurt. No one wants to suffer loss, disappointment, or physical pain. But all too often, in trying to hide from those inevitabilities, we escape into emotional numbness. The person who succeeds in creating a mental and spiritual environment in which he or she feels no pain will never, ever want to dance in the rain.
God puts before us blessing and curse every day of our lives. So how do we know how to choose? How do we know if our choice is the right one? Isn’t it possible that choosing to worship the sun and moon would be more gratifying and tangible than worshipping an invisible deity? Can’t it be said that a life of material gratification is as meaningful as a life of sacrifice and restriction? How do I get to the point that I want to dance in the rain, rather than simply protecting myself from pain? How do I achieve the life of blessing that is supposed to come from following the mitzvot? All God has told me in this parashah is that there is blessing and curse to be had. Re’eh, see, He says, and tishmeun, listen.
And therein is the key. Seeing and hearing properly will let us choose properly. But that begs the question of how.
I’m going to suggest something that may be a little different from answers you may have heard before. The way you achieve proper perspective on blessing and curse is through teshuvah. Not teshuvah as we usually use the term during the month of Elul, in the sense of penitence, apology, and contriteness; I mean teshuvah in the sense of “answer” or response. Teshuvah doesn’t just reform the past, it reframes the past. It changes it into something valuable for the present and future. It’s not just being sorry for mistakes, it’s changing them into something that allows you to let go of the guilt, learn from the experience, and even be thankful for having had the experience, regardless of how painful it might have been.
The Mishnah in Pirke Avot says, “lefum tzara agra” – according to the suffering, the reward. All too often we understand that to mean the more you suffer, the greater your reward in the world to come. But I don’t think that is the only way – or even the best way – to understand that phrase.
“Lefi hatzaar hasechar” means according to the quality with which you invest the suffering that is the level of reward you will receive. If, God forbid, we’ve lost someone we love, suffered a professional setback, or endured physical suffering, and we become immersed in our suffering, then the only reward will be self-pity and depression. That’s not to say that when we’re suffering, we’re not entitled to pity and self-pity to some extent. But sooner or later, if we don’t try to examine our experience from a distance to see if there is something to be learned from it, then we will be destined to simply become bitter.
And even if we are entitled to that bitterness because the tragedy was so huge and unfair and terrible, if we succumb to it, we will not enjoy living anymore. Curse.
When we force ourselves to do as the Mishnah requires – “keshem shemevarkhim al hatovah,” just as we say a blessing, we thank God for the good, so must we do for the bad – that incredibly difficult level is true teshuvah. That is the level of response. That is the place where we are touched by the good as deeply as by the bad, and we find a way to incorporate the experiences to better whatever time God grants us on this earth. It is that level of constant teshuvah – constant sensitivity and response rather than emotional subjugation – that leads people to want to dance in the rain even after they’ve wished they could feel no pain. Blessing.
In living teshuvah, response to the vagaries of life, we may find forgiveness for our failings as well. Not necessarily from others, and maybe not even from God, but from ourselves. How hard it is to accept our failings, reframe them through teshuvah, and go on, having learned from that experience. It is easy to dwell on the failure long after it has been forgotten by others, even by God. Curse. Living a life of teshuvah includes forgiving ourselves so that we can move past the past. Blessing.
As the month of Elul begins and we start our preparation for the yamim noraim, may each of us be blessed to live in constant teshuvah to all life grants us, may we be spared pain, but may our lives and souls be open and full of feeling. May our pain or that of others be reframed in a way that lets us notice and take opportunities to dance with joy in life before God, be it in the rain or otherwise. Blessing.