How Moses challenged both Israel and G-d to consider their ways. Engagement goes both ways.
“Behold, I lay before you today
blessing and a curse”
| Re’eh anochi notain lifneichem hayom
| b’racha uk’lalah.
The name of our parsha is “re’eh,” which is often translated as behold and see. Just as in the English and Romance languages such a word is used quite flexibly, the same is true in Hebrew. To ra’ah not only means to see, but also to perceive, to understand, to determine; it can also mean to investigate, check or examine.
As we come into the this parsha we have Moses speaking to the nation, as we will read starting in verse 29 the people are commanded that when they come into the land of Israel they are to divide up the tribes, half are to go to Mount Gezarim to hear the pronounce blessings and affirm them with the word “amein,” and half of the tribes are to remain on Mount Eival and affirm the words of the curses likewise with the word “amein;” they are to be affirmed as they are pronounced by the priests (see Deut. 27:11-14).
Even though we are going to deal with this in our studies of Parshat Ki Tavo in a few weeks, it is important that we make sure we are already in the proper frame of mind. As we come into this study it is essential for us to realize that we are not talking about the people being offered either enchantment or hexing. Basic Judaism everyone knows is that a blessing is not anything magical, it’s merely taking an ordinary thing and elevating it for a divine purpose; wine, bread, fruit, water, just about anything. To say words acknowledging the handwork of G-d in the item, and connect it to a spiritual task. We recognize the goodness in it and therefore gratefully bless G-d; we elevate His Name, we don’t enchant Him. But how about for cursing? That is something we don’t often hear about. Thank G-d, we don’t go around cursing each other in our culture, it’s so foreign of a concept that few understand what is meant. But to kalal – to curse – means use an expletive, a swearword.
What Moses is telling the people is that he is placing before them the following conditions, if they keep them they will have reason to bless, but if they don’t they will groan with curses. What are the conditions? Let’s read on:
“The blessing if you give heed
to the commandments
of Hashem your G-d
which I command to you today.
The curse if you do not heed
of Hashem your G-d
but turn from the path
which I have commanded to you today,
to follows after other gods,
after which you have not known.”
| Et-haberachah asher tishme’u
| Hashem Eloheichem
| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom.
| Vehakelalah im-lo tishme’u
| Hashem Eloheichem
| vesartem min-haderech
| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom
l alechet acharei elohim
| acherim asher lo-yedatem.
It’s very clear, we keep mitzvot (the commandments) and we will have blessings, but if we abandon the path and go seeking after novel religious experiences we are going to be cursed. It’s simple and clear. Also let us bring to mind the concept understood by the Kabbalist, to l’daat Hashem is to know G-d intimately, like a man knows his wife; it means to make an intimate union, thats how close the communion is. G-d does not want us to know other gods in that way.
One of the things we have been discussing as we deal with the subject of prayer and kabbalah is how to connect to G-d (see article “Breaking Down Elitism in Kabbalah Study“). We understand as the scriptures say that G-d is the sole Authority in the universe, He stands alone as the only power (see Isaiah 45). He is all-powerful; this force was already described in Devarim (Deuteronomy) as:
“For Hashem your G-d
is a consuming fire;
a jealous G-d.”
| Ki Hashem Elocheicha
| aish ochlah hu,
| El kana.
This scripture we can easily understand: as G-d is all-powerful we know that it is not possible to literally connect to G-d, to touch the Divine, or else we would be devoured by the sheer glory of this force that drives all of existence. We also understand since G-d is not a person (Numbers 23:19), that G-d is not driven by emotions as we are, so we must understand this word jealous in its pure sense, kanah means the demand to be exclusive to someone (see Parshat Nasso). G-d wishes that we understand that He is everything, and therefore by virtue of that He is everything we need! And secondly, He demands that we come to the conclusion in ourselves that He is our entire world, there is none other to even consider. G-d being the sole force in our universe permeates all, anything that is not according to His order is consumed and destroyed; it is an anomaly that is canceled out.
Understanding this we move beyond the childish concept of G-d as a whim driven person who is prone to emotional outbursts that we need to fear. Instead the scriptures present us with a picture of G-d as a fire, not just a fire but a fire that consumes everything and anything; an all-consuming fire. Now a fire is not good or bad, nor is it happy or angry when it does what it does. Fire when utilized properly brings us warmth, comfort and light; it is useful and necessary. But when used improperly it can burn, destroy, harm and even kill. But we need not fear G-d, as one might a fire. In fact we shouldn’t even fear fire at all, instead we should show a respect for it and its nature. So too our fear for G-d should be, that we should be in keeping with the proper respect for G-d’s order in this dynamic universe in order to receive the benefits of His light. Because if we do not, then we can be harmed; though it has nothing to do with maliciousness, that is the natural outcome of our misuse.
What Moses is doing here is laying out this Torah before the people and saying to them this is a powerful tool, for those of who follow the instructions that were given by G-d through him it would serve them well. But if they did not show proper respect in order to do it, it would come to harm and destroy them. It has nothing to do with the desires of G-d nor the nature of His Torah, it merely has to do with how they utilize it.
This principle is also mirrored in the Oral Torah, the Talmud:
“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani [said]:
Rabbi Yonatan [pointed out the following]
It is written:
The authority of Hashem is right,
gladdening the heart. (Psalm 19:9)
But it is also written:
The word of Hashem is tried. (Psalm 28:31)
If he is meritorious, it gladdens him;
if not, it tries him.
Resh Lakish said: From the body of
the same passage this can be derived:
If he is meritorious, it tries him unto life;
if not, it tries him unto death.”
רבי שמואל בר נהמני |
רבי יונתן |
פקודי ה׳ ישרים |
משמחי לב |
אמרת ה׳ צרופה |
זכה משמרתו |
לא זכה צורפתו |
ריש לקיש אמר מגופיה דקרא |
נפקא זכה |
צורפתו לחיים |
לא זכה צורפתו למיתה |
Talmud Bavli Yoma 72b
If one does what they told, to keep the mitzvot and stay true to Hashem their G-d then this Torah will be something for them to rejoice over. But if not, this Torah is going to be something that is going to be very trying for them, in fact to the point that they will perish.
Now the latter part of this text is interpreted by our rabbis a bit more deeply, and honestly more appropriately, by translating it as “if he merits it, then it is a drug of life, if not it is a poison of death.” This is most likely because the word for “try,” or “tests” as some say, actually means to be refined, to be purified (the word צרף). In the figurative sense what this alludes to is essential extracts that were used as medicines, the first drugs in existence. Many of the rabbis were well-educated in medicine, and this concept was understood easily by them. That a drug when used properly can bring health and repair to the body, but when misused and if we do not follow the instructions as given, it can become a poison of death to us. There is nothing wrong with the prescribing physician or the remedy, the fault lies in the user if there are mishaps! So too is the Torah like a drug, it bring us health or ruin depending on how much we respect the power of it.
Moses tells us to “re’eh,” to examine for ourselves, to check, to investigate to see if this is not true. If we do, we will be able to see and understand that this is true, determining that G-d really does fill the lives to those who hold to His ways with blessings, whereas those who have not have perished from the face of the earth. The Torah, unlike the religions of world does not demand that you “see it my way,” but that you examine it in order to perceive it for oneself.
In Torah Living, Engagement Goes Both Way
There is another place in the Chumash (The Torah, The Five Books of Moses), that also displays the flexibility of this word “re’eh,” both cases in an engaging fashion as well. For those who know the Jewish faith, the idea of being engaged and challenging in the words of Torah is not anything new to the average reader. But to those that are of different faiths it can seem perplexing how often in the Hebrew scriptures the righteous engage G-d. Not only do they engage G-d, but they do so in very direct and strong terms. Not only are we allowed to consider the truth of G-d’s ways, but we are given the ability to approach G-d that He give consideration to us as well.
In Exodus 33 after the disastrous incident of the golden calf Moses approaches G-d, Who has separated His presence from before the people so as not to consume them until they all die. In verse 5 they are clearly told that if G-d were to let Himself approach them His presence would annihilate them. Therefore Moses separates the tent of meeting from the rest of the community of Israel and sets it up outside of the camp, where G-d would meet with him according to His command. As G-d is still in the act of ruling on the punishment for the people Moses gives us two strong ways of looking at the word “re’eh,” as well as surprises many people with a point-blank challenge to G-d Himself:
“And Moses said to Hashem:
See, you have said to me:
Bring this people up
but you have not let me know
who you will send with me.
And you have said:
I shall know you by name
and you shall also have favor
in My eyes.
And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes
show me your way, that I know You,
so that I might find favor in Your sight.
And consider that this nation is Your people!”
| Vayomer Moshe el-Hashem:
| Re’eh, atah omer elai
| ha’al et-ha’am hazeh
| ve’atah lo hodatani
| et asher-tishlach imi
| Ve’atah amarta
| yedaticha veshem
| vegam-matzata chen
| Ve’atah im-na matzati chen be’eineicha
| hodi’eni na et-derachecha ve’eda’acha
| lema’an emtza-chen be’eineicha
| ure’eh ki amecha hagoy hazeh.
The context of the situation is one in which G-d is so fed up with the people after the golden calf that He is considering annihilating the entire nation aside from Moses and building a new nation out of him alone. (Exodus 32:10) But then Moses intercedes on their behalf and G-d forgives them. However, there yet remains the issue of consequence, they are no longer able to enjoy the Presence of G-d surrounding them in the midst of the camp, it takes residence outside the camp and calls only to Moses now. But Moses is not content to go forwards without the Presence of G-d still remaining with them. G-d does actually consider what Moses has to say, and honors his request because we read in the next verse:
“And He said: My Presence shall go with you
and give you rest”
| Vayomar panai yelechu
| vahanichoti lach.
Moses approaches G-d basically saying, “Look, this is what you said but I still don’t know how this all works and who You are. Show me your path and I will follow it, then I will know You and be able to please You. Think about it, these are Your people but we don’t know what You want us to do.” Moses is asking G-d to consider His relationships to His people, and the task at hand so as to examine if His dealing with them is best for the goals which He has set for them.
If the King of the universe allows His perfect way to be open to scrutiny, how much more should we as ordinary and faulty people be open to considering our ways. Are our ways consistent with the outcome that we desire in life? If not then we need to just admit it and make a new plan of action.
The Torah was give to us as a comprehensive plan at Moses’ requested. Here in Devarim – or as it is called in the Talmud the Misheh Torah, the repetition of the Torah – we are being told what it means. That this Torah can either bring life to us or death to us. But the decision of that outcome is completely up to us, it all has to do with how we receive it! How receptive are you as a person, my friend?