The Torah promises great rewards for fulfilling God’s commandments. Why can’t we “see” those rewards?
Table for Five: Re’eh
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing if you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.
Bracha Goetz, Author of 39 spiritual children’s books
LOOK, the Source of Everything is giving your inner self divine gifts right this very moment! A clear and never-ending wellspring of goodness is yours – if you absorb all the ways in which the Creator of the entire Universe loves you as an individual here and now. There will only be disguised blessings if you turn away and go looking for love outside of our pure relationship, following those who have never demonstrated their genuine care and concern for you.
We can take things for granted by thinking “Of course!” Or recognize goodness comes from a Source!
Although we were created simply to experience the joy of gratitude, so often we forget to do just that. The pandemic has been a global spiritual lesson in developing appreciation for many things we may have taken for granted before.
We can turn away and try to seek sources of pleasure that are disguised as appearing to be separate from Source, but that only makes it take that much longer to experience the deep and nourishing joy of gratitude that our souls need to thrive. Or we can choose to focus, for instance, on all the body parts we have that are currently working and the beautiful nature around us.
LOOK, we get to enjoy the abundance of revealed blessings from the Source of Everything – filling and surrounding us right this very moment!
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty
There is a debate in the Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) over whether one is rewarded for mitzvot in this world or in the world to come. The Malbim (1809 – 1879) pointed out that in our verse the Torah specifies that we will see the blessing and the curse with our own eyes, with clarity, in this world, as “Behold” may even more directly be translated as the imperative, “See!”
Taking a different approach, his contemporary, Mei HaShiloach (1801 – 1854), enigmatically stated that, “When God gives goodness he dresses it in a way that makes it appear the opposite so that a person can clarify the good and bring it to light.”
This conceptual debate recalls the sad story of righteous Job’s suffering, and the anguished challenge raised by Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 7:15) that, “sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness.”
Today, it would be reasonable for us to wonder why a pandemic has turned our lives upside down, with curses akin to those later elaborated in Deuteronomy 28, where we are threatened with terrible repercussions for sin, such as pestilence, consumption, and fever. With the start of the introspective month of Elul, whatever our beliefs about reward and punishment, this is a time to take the debate to heart, and conclude with the prayer, as they did in some communities after reading the Torah curses: “May God change the curse into a blessing, and let us say, Amen.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
The La Times recently interviewed a woman in Missouri who decided against receiving the Covid vaccine. She explained why she and her friends decided against vaccination, saying: “the stronger someone’s trust is in the Lord, the least likely they are to want the vaccine or feel that it’s necessary.”
When I read this quote, I realized that inaccurate theology can be fatal. If she contracts Covid, the underlying cause of her illness would be a misunderstanding of how God operates in the world.
“Behold I set before today a blessing and a curse…” This verse teaches that God presents options for us, between life and death, blessings and curses. We can’t merely sit back passively and assume that everything will be fine. We must actively choose between these options.
This idea is echoed in an old story, recounted by Rabbi Edward Feinstein in Tough Questions Jews Ask: “A man who goes up to heaven at the end of his life. He stands before the throne of God. The man looks up at God and says, “You know, I’ve very angry at You! Can’t You see that the world You created is filled with suffering and ugliness and destruction? Why don’t You do something to fix the world’s mess?
God looks down at the man, and in a gentle voice says, “I did do something. I sent you.”
In this time of uncertainty, may we do everything in our power to “choose life,” so that we and our descendants may live.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha (www.NerSimcha.org)
There is an old saying in sports that there is a huge difference between watching the bullfight and being in the ring. A person walking by a swimming pool and hearing a man yelling at a teenager might think the adult is acting abusively. But if he knew that the youth is committed to becoming a champion athlete, the spectator’s perspective changes to appreciation of the coach’s discipline.
Every competitive athlete understands the concept of short-term pain in order to achieve long term success. We must follow the rigors of training if we want to achieve our goals, and the quickest path to failure is to ignore the requirements necessary. Parents teach their children this same value, and in this verse we see that God is the ultimate “coach” for our souls.
God is not bribing or threatening us. Like any good coach he is making it clear that one path leads to success and joy while the other leads to failure and sadness. He reminds us here that living a mitzvah-observant life manifests untold blessings, and those blessings are absent without the observance. We are to remember that mitzvot are the training practices that will lead to our success and happiness.
“Am Yisrael Chai”, the people of Israel will always live. But for us to thrive, we must each take on more mitzvot and heed the guidance of the ultimate coach. May we all find the blessings of success by passionately embracing the spiritual training we have been given.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
The second of these verses presents a striking detail that is often elided in translations. Although the verse is often translated with the phrase “the blessing if you heed the commandments,” the relative particle “asher” that appears in this verse suggests a reading more like “the blessing is that you heed the commandments.” The Nation of Israel is asked to see that the commandments themselves are a blessing. The commandments are not merely tasks to perform and regulations governing Jewish life. They are much more than this: they are a guide to living well, and each mitzvah is suffused with blessing.
It is noteworthy that the Nation of Israel is asked here to “behold” or “see” the great value of the commandments. In contradistinction to understanding something or knowing about it, seeing something is more experiential; seeing concretizes a fact and makes it intuitively relatable. We are asked to experience the mitzvot first-hand, to personalize this experience, and to relate to mitzvot as if their worth were visible to our own eyes.
The mitzvah of Tsitsit (ritual fringes) is a commandment that encapsulates this concept. We are commanded to “see” the Tsitsit and thereby remember and cherish all of the mitzvot in such a fashion that we come to “do them” (Num 15:39). Each act of a mitzvah, no matter how small, is an opportunity to make the abstract Divine more real to us, to personally experience the substance of a mitzvah through its performance. Let us do mitzvot and see the Divine!
With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Nili Isenberg, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Rabbi Michael Barclay, and Rabbi Avraham Greenstein.
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