“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse...”
The fourth reading of Sefer Devarim (The Book of Deuteronomy) is Parshat Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16-17). The title of the Torah portion is taken from the first word of Moses’ address in the imperative: “See! (re’eh), I present before you today a blessing and a curse…”
Parshat Re’eh inaugurates a series of three consecutive Torah portions – Re’eh, Shoftim, Ki Tetzei – that contain more commandments than any other pericope in Scripture. Until now, Moses has focused on the importance of revering Hashem; the benefit and necessity of loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, and resources; and the tools they will need as a people to adapt to their new life in the Promised Land. Within the first ten chapters of the book, most of what Moses has said has come in the form of a rebuke. Yet, even his rebuke is intended to encourage and inspire the people to greatness.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
This week, Moses kicks off the trilogy by putting the commands of God into perspective, explaining that the choice of the Jewish people on whether to accept the Torah and their mission is nothing short of choosing between a blessing and a curse:
The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of the LORD, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: If you do not hearken to the commandments of the LORD, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did not know. (Deut. 11:27-28).
At this juncture in the book, Moses’ statement represents a monumental shift in focus as he moves from the “30,000-foot overview” and gets down to the “brass tax”. In the previous parashah, Moses told the people that keeping the Torah and mitzvot is key to living a prosperous life in the Holy Land. Now, Moses begins teaching specific commandments and frames the discussion with the purview of blessings and curses. Later in the book, Moses will reframe the question by equating the blessing and the curse to a choice between life and death: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deut. 30:15).”
In both bookend statements, Moses fronts the prophetic ultimatum with the singular imperative “see – re’eh.” Essentially, our Torah portion and continuing to the end of the book is all about seeing i.e., perspective. The imperative beckons the reader to pause and consider the gravity of what Moses is about to say next: “STOP… THINK… CONTINUE: The blessing and the curse!”
However, what Moses commands his people to see is not merely a conjuring of visual perspective. The Hebrew word ראה (re’eh) encompasses so much more than physical perception and the content that Moses presents after delivering the imperative demonstrates his desire for the nation to see beyond themselves and to what is visible from heaven’s perspective. The dynamic application of the word ראה is evident in its diverse uses throughout the Hebrew Bible. For instance, in Ecclesiastes 1:16 the author employs the word ראה to describe the seat of human intellect – the heart – having perceived and acquired great wisdom and knowledge:
דברתי אני עם־לבי לאמר אני הנה הגדלתי והוספתי חכמה על כל־אשׁר־היה לפני על־ירושׁלם ולבי רָאָה הרבּה חכמה ודעת׃
I said to myself: “Here I have grown richer and wiser than any that ruled before me over Jerusalem, and my mind has zealously absorbed (lit. seen - ra’ah) wisdom and learning.”
Elsewhere, in I Samuel 9:9, we discover that the prophets of Israel were formerly called “seers” – a participial noun of the same root, רואה (Ro’eh). Apparently, in the generations before the Davidic dynasty, the prophets of Israel carried a title that was symbolic of their ability to “see” Godly visions. Thus, Moses’ application of the word throughout the book in lieu of its accompanying context demands the people to enter the Promised Land with clarity and understanding of the big picture.
The fifty-two commandments that follow throughout the Torah portion all pertain to life in the Land of Israel:
These are the decrees and ordinances that you shall observe to perform in the Land that Hashem, the God of your forefathers, has given you, to possess it, all the days that you live on the Land (Deut. 12:1).
To be successful in the Land of Israel, the Jewish people must perceive the nature of their collective calling and appreciate how each individual is integral to the prosperity or failure of the mission. Ibn Ezra, one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages, comments on re’eh (Deut. 11:26) and explains that Moses simultaneously speaks to each covenant member at the individual level. The imagery can be likened to a pew sitter who processes a public address from the pulpit while all the while sensing that the preacher’s eyes are directly on them. Moses is imparting to each Jew Godly vision, understanding, and wisdom to discern blessing from curse and to choose life!
EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT
The concept of personal salvation and a personal relationship with God is not original to Christianity. Rather, the concept is rooted in Judaism by what is called in Hebrew, Ge’ulah Pratit (personal redemption). In the rabbinic commentaries, personal redemption is discernible as a class from national or corporal redemption. However, the error in Western Christian thought is the tendency to divorce the individual from communal responsibility as it pertains to a person's influence on corporal standing. Both are important concepts in Jewish thought, and Judaism teaches that a multitude of personal redemptions is added together to bring about Israel’s corporeal redemption, and ultimately a global redemption. The order is not dissimilar to Paul’s numerous statements about the priority of the gospel message - to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles (Rom 1:16; 2:9-10).
The consequence of this understanding is that our individual actions and the decisions we make affect the merit and standing of God’s covenant community. Often, the blessings and curses described in Moses’ discourse are interpreted by Bible readers to mean that personal prosperity and blessing will come to those who are faithful to God and obedient to Torah. While it is true that there is something to be said about personal merit and how it corresponds to individual standing in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mat. 5:19; 18:4; 19:28-20:16), the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy have to do with corporeal prosperity in this life, within the confines of time and space. It is no uncertainty that there are plenty of godly individuals who live paycheck to paycheck or struggle to make ends meet. There are numerous examples and parables in the New Testament of righteous individuals struggling in the present while accumulating riches in heaven e.g., the widow who gave two pennies out of her poverty (Mk. 12:41-44) and the illustration of Lazarus who was poor in this life but merited to be welcomed by Abraham in the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 16:19-31).
The perspective Moses is portraying pertains to national prosperity as an indicator of Israel’s success in fulfilling their covenant responsibility and achieving their national objective: Mainly, to promote righteousness and advance God-consciousness among the nations. Essentially, when the Jewish people are devout in their mission, personal redemptions are added together to accelerate the unveiling of the Master of the World and ultimately, global redemption. Thus, when Israel prospers, the world prospers. And when things are on the right track, one only needs to look to the Land of Israel and see – Blessing and prosperity among the Jewish people, rain upon the land, and abundance in the field. Yet, the message of Parshat Re’eh is that nobody should think for an instant, that they are insignificant as individuals in contributing to that vision! As Moses will explain in later chapters:
“When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. (Deut. 29:19).’”
Thus, Parshat Re’eh is all about the opportunity that God extends to His people to receive His help and mercy so that they may elevate their collective neshamah (soul) to new heights. Re’eh is about seeing the whole of the Torah and its commandments from the proper perspective. It’s about seeing the mitzvoth with the same vision that was given to Moses with Israel coming into the Land and living according to the principles and guidelines of the Torah, which are enumerated collectively in this week’s parashah as follows:
CH. 12 | Possessing the Land and eradicating idols. Establishing God’s Sanctuary in the place that He chooses to have His name dwell.
CH. 13 | Responding properly to false prophets and demonstrating communal cohesion when there is a threat or disruption.
CH. 14 | Contributing to the national and common welfare of the people and its leaders through the various tithes. In this way, the laborers who tend to the spiritual needs of the nation will be sustained, and when people come together to participate in the Divine Service, the Temple will be maintained and functioning.
The motif is that every individual has something to offer to the community, whether talents, finances, or creativity, that contributes positively or negatively to the prosperity of the nation. Thus, every decision and action made on the part of the individual has the power to tilt the scales toward blessing or curse. As Moses puts it, for every covenant member, life and death come down to a choice.
Parshat Re’eh is all about seeing the program of God and buying into it. In the 21st century, we have the luxury of looking back over the course of nearly 4,000 years of Jewish history and perceiving the moments when our people lost the vision. Even in the moments of greatest despair, we also have the benefit of seeing that in our short-sightedness, God has never abandoned us, and the opportunity He offers to recapture the vision and return to Him remains in every generation.