The Book of Deuteronomy is more auditory than visual. The Hebrew name of the book, Devarim, can be translated as “words” or “sayings.” Moses delivers poetry and memoir; encouragement and criticism; commandments and promises. Formerly not one for public speaking, Moses gives a virtuoso verbal performance. A worried elder about to leave his people, he uses rhetoric, rapport, authority, charisma, passion — in short, every tool he can — to get the people to listen, now and in the future. For most of the book, he is — literally — a lone voice in the wilderness. The root words for “voice” and “hear” appear a whopping fourteen times in the chapter that leads up to the verse of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One.”
The Hebrew root “Shema” — which can be translated as hear, listen, heed, and understand — appears throughout this week’s Torah portion, as well. Moses gives this global instruction: “Safeguard and listen (veshamata) to all these words (devarim) that I command you.” (Deut. 12:28) Already in the second verse of the portion, we are promised blessing “when you listen (tishmeu) to the commandments of Adonai your God.” Verse three promises a curse “if you do not listen (lo tishmeu).”
All this focus on hearing makes the opening verse of the Torah portion particularly striking and even surprising: “Look (Re’eh), I am giving you [literally, giving before you] today blessing and curse.”
Here are some ways to understand this opening phrase and especially the word “look.” They draw from traditional commentaries, and they apply to the choices that God is putting “before [us] today.”
1) Look at the world and at the choices before you.
With images of danger and cruelty in every newscast, it is tempting to look away. I don’t want to watch the Amazon burn. I don’t want to see lines for bottled water in Newark. I don’t want to witness children held in detention because their parents sought asylum in our country. I don’t approve, but I don’t see what I can do. Maybe I’ll just stay home and watch Netflix.
The command “look!” and the stark contrast between blessing and curse give me no cover, no place to hide. From the Torah’s perspective, every choice inclines us either toward blessing or toward curse; there is no third, neutral option. No one can claim observer status or turn a blind eye; everyone is responsible.
Sforno, the 16th century rabbi and physician, warned, in his commentary on this verse: “Look and see that you won’t be like those in the majority who relate to everything in a middling way. Rather, “I am putting before you today blessing and curse” — two extremes — “…Both are before you to achieve, according to your choice.”
The world is divided by something deeper than politics, race, gender, nationality, or even religion. Look.
2) Look in the mirror.
Take responsibility for the choices you make and the world you help to create. In the opening verse that calls us to see and to choose, the word “look” (re’eh) is in the singular, whereas lifneychem, the Hebrew word that signifies “before you,” is plural. This mix of grammatical persons begs for interpretation.
The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century Eastern European sage and religious leader, commented: “Look is in the singular, so that no person should say, ‘Who am I that I should choose on my own the right path, if most of the world is behaving harmfully and wickedly?’ Therefore, it says ‘look’ in singular language: Look — you, personally — at what is before you. You [singular] do what is yours to do….”
3) See how precarious — and significant — our situation is.
Many commentators connect the conflation of singular and plural in our verse with a teaching from Talmud Kiddushin 40b, which states “a person should view himself as though he were exactly half liable and half meritorious.” The visual image in the Talmud is of a balance scale. On one side are a person’s own (singular) sins and the sins of the entire world (plural). On the other side, in perfect balance, are the individual’s own (singular) merits together with the merits of the entire world (plural). The result is that, at any given moment, one person’s next move decides the balance of good and evil in the world.
Clearly, you are that individual — and so am I, and so is our neighbor. Today’s choices have significance and impact —immediately and for the future. We influence the world and one another to an extent that is both frightening and humbling.
The image of the balanced scales, with pans equally full of sins and good deeds, stirs not only the visual imagination, but the conscience and the heart. Each choice we make is literally weighty. Every individual decision can tip the scales in favor of or against humanity.
4) Look for help. Look to role models.
Who is speaking in the opening verse? Of course, it could be God. The word for “I” is “Anochi” which harkens back to the essential “I” of God’s first statement on Mt. Sinai: “Anochi/I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” The Talmud (Shabbat 105a) suggests that the word “anochi” is an acronym for “I myself wrote and gave” (ana nafshi ketivat yehavit) or “a pleasant statement was written and given” (amira ne’ima ketiva yehiva). When we consider that it is God giving us the instruction to look and to choose, that perspective can bolster our confidence. God has faith in us. God is speaking to us. God has empowered us. God wishes the best for us. God will help us.
The speaker could also be Moses. The Ohr Hachayim, an 18th century Moroccan rabbi, commentator, and leader, suggests that the opening words “Look, I” can be understood to imply “look at me, Moses. Everything that I have accomplished you are able to accomplish for yourselves.” He goes on to quote the famous statement by Maimonides that it is in every person’s power to be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.
The daunting task of choosing wisely has been accomplished by great people — some famous and some practically anonymous. Emulate them.
5) Pay attention! Don’t lose focus!
These days, we see and hear the news — or what passes for news — more than we used to. Our eyes and ears are bombarded by social media and 24/7 punditry.
“Look,” says God, through Moses. Don’t get distracted by every story, detail, or tweet. There is a through line to address, an essential truth to grapple with. Pay attention! “I give you” (present tense; for all time; not just in the days of Moses) “today” (every time you open and read this Torah, it will be “today”) “blessing and curse” (good and evil — and the responsibility to discern and choose between them).
6) See that you have a choice.
You may feel boxed in. It may seem that you are forced to choose between bad and worse. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you have a choice. If nothing else, you have ultimate say in your own attitude about real-life limitations and disadvantages. God and Torah do not seek to limit your freedom, but to shine a light on it.
Rabbeynu Bachya of 13th-14th century Spain put it this way: “The whole premise of this freedom of choice is understood easily by the fact that God bothers again and again to command [us] what to do and what not to do. If [we] were not free to chart our own course, it would not make sense for God to … give [us] all these commandments.”
Abarbanel, a 15th century Portuguese statesman, Jewish leader, and commentator, declared in his commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15: “The truth of human choice … is the foundation of the Torah and its interpretations.”
7) Now is a good time to choose.
Choice is given “today” according to Re’eh, so — by definition — any day is auspicious for choosing. It’s always a good time to make a choice for goodness and blessing.
Yet this time of year is especially potent for both seeing and choosing. On Friday evening, the month of Elul will begin. This is the time when we are asked to review the past year and create a vision for the coming year. We look inward — at our own motivations, impulses, and dreams. We look outward — to see whom we have hurt and how we might help repair the world. God is considered to be especially close in this time of High Holiday preparation. In the language of the tradition, “the King is in the field.” Up close. Within view. Re’eh — look.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson and author or editor of six books, will be teaching a participatory workshop called “Got Teshuvah?” on Thursday September 12 at 7:30 pm. RSVP or learn more at www.bisrael.com