I’ll be using this space to make my Divrei Torah available after they’ve been delivered at the JCA. I hope these written out versions make sense—sometimes I just make a note or two to myself on the page, and improvise while I’m speaking. Whenever possible, I will clean things up for ‘publication’…
Parashat Re’eh [Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17]
I’ll have a chance to offer three teachings between now and the start of the High Holidays, and I’ve decided to link them thematically around the time of the Jewish year in which we happen to currently find ourselves, so I want to devote a little time in this morning’s teaching to saying a few words about what this special time period is.
In about four days, we will begin the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar, which is known for being a time when we begin to think about tshuva—repentence returning, the work of the high holidays. We begin to blow the shofar at morning services, and we add Psalm 27 to the daily liturgy, which forms the refrain between now and Hoshana Raba. So it’s a time when a young man’s heart turns to tshuva.
There’s something else going on now, too, in a mixture of the holiday cycle and the reading cycle. It all has to do with the haftarah and the holiday of Tisha b’Av—the holiday of destruction, the height or depth of brokenness. We lead into it with a series of punishing messages from the prophets Jeremiah and Isiaiah, as if we too were on the verge of a calamity hearing and ignoring the voices of the prophets of doom. And then after Tisha b’Av we hear the nekhemta, the seven haftorot from the later chapters of the book of Isaiah that speak of a consolation following tragedy, and lead us almost all the way up to the High Holidays. (Today we’re on the third of these.)
When we combine these two things—Elul and the period of nekhemta (the haftorot of consolation)—we get a new feeling for the texture of these August days. We turn toward the High Holidays, toward tshuva, while still feeling the reverberation of a trauma (the destruction of the Temple)—with the kind of mentality that comes from having lived through a destruction—with some comfort, but perhaps also with a kind of wariness, glad to be alive but with a loss of innocence—life contains this darkness,too—maybe even with a changed perception of the future. We know, now, from experience, that it is not limitless—that bodies and civilizations are vulnerable, cycles of rise and fall invevitable; that time is incalculably precious, becaues it passes. We may have a new appreciation for the phrase of Pslam 90, which is also one of the leitmotifs of the High Holidays: “Teach us to number our days so that we might acquire hearts of wisdom.” We may discover an intense desire to be oriented toward a perception of what is most sacred in our lives.
Our Torah portion today, Re’eh, begins with a statement about orienting ourselves toward what is sacred, and also with two very strong verbs of perception: Re’eh, “Behold, see”, says Moshe (Moses), speaking in God’s first person, anokhi noten leefneykhem hayom bracha ooklalh. “I am setting before you this day a blessing and a curse.” Et ha-brakha asher teeshmioo el mitzvot adonai eloheykhem asher anokhi mitzveh etchem hayom. “The blessing if you obey” literally hear, shomea, “the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day,” vihaklala im lo teeshmioo, “and the curse if you will not obey”, again, literally, shomea, hear.
So this verse offer us a kind of choice—what the Torah will later describe as the choice between life and death—choosing to live sacredly, here described as living accoding to the commandments of the Lord your God, or choosing to reject this orientation. And it does so couched in the language of seeing and hearing—ro’eh and shomea. I want to explore this in a little more detail.
Re’eh is a command: behold! Look! Hearing such a strong commanding verb at the start of the passage, we might respond by saying: “Look at what? What are we supposed to be looking at?” “I set before you a blessing and a curse.” How are we supposed to look at that? It may just be a rhetorical flourish, a call to attention, but there’s also a way in which the Torah presents these blessings and curses as something very visual—something that can be seen—as it continues to articulate them. In chapter 29 of Dvarim, for instance, we find the nature of these blessings and curses filled in in great, and sometimes excruciating details, inviting us to see what they mean.
“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in and when you go out. The Lord will cause the enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before you; they shall come out against you in one way, and will flee before you in seven ways.”
And on the other hand: “Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the fruit of your land…the Lord shall make the pestilence cleave to you, smite you with consumption and with fever…you will grope at noonday as the blind gropes in darkness…you shall be mad for the sight of your eyes which you will see.”
Here we find the exhoration of the start of the parsha developed into a series of images, a list of things we can actually see in our mind’s eye. But they are visual in another sense, too: these blessings and curses, these images of abundance and lack, of success, sickness, and despair are the obervable texture of earthly lives: they are the natural texture of life that we cannot help but see simply by being human and having eyes. But this passage does something else: it takes reality and makes it into theology. You want to know why you see a world of such variety, of exultation and pain? It’s all because of the favor and displeasure of God. You are blessed when you do right, and if you are cursed it’s because you didn’t.
There’s a way in which these words take on a new and scary resonance in our age of ecological devastation and resource depletion—in which we feel a somewhat justifiable sense of guilt for the things we see, or cannot bring ourselves to look at, going on around us, and that’s a good subject for another time. What I want to bring out in this parsha today is the more basic way that the Torah seems to propose an answer to the “mystery of suffering”, by saying that when things go wrong in our lives, it is an indication that we are not right with God. This may be a pattern of explanation that many here have rejected, but it is still plenty active in our culture, and its undeniable presence in our sacred texts often proves to be a stumbling block for people looking to them for solace in times of trouble. Traditionally, the may form a kind of savage comfort, an abhorrent kind of certainty. The place of the Holy is to judge us by its merits, and castiagte us so that we walk the right path. Tshuva is walking the correct path so that we don’t get punished. We see the trials of the world as a direct consquence of how we behave.
But it’s important to point out this is not the only path provided by the Tanakh. I think first of all of the book of Job, which seems designed for almost no other reason than to say that bad things happen to good people for inexplicable reasons, and that God is experienced in the midst of suffering not as the righteous cause of that suffering, but as a kind of astounding mystery. And then there’s the story of Elijah. He goes right from the moment of triupmh over the idolators of Ba’al—seeing the power of God rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked—to a moment of despair in the wilderness, when, later on, so many righteous prophets have been killed. His certainty in the justice of the world is profoundly shaken, and he wants to die. In confrontation with naked reality, he has lost his vision of God. But here God is described as intervening, sending an angel to feed and comfort Elijah, to restore him, and to lead him up to a cave on the top of a mountain. “And Elijah stood upon the mountain, before the Lord, and behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire, and after the fire a still, small voice, and when Elijah heard it he wrapped his face in a mantel and went out of the cave, and God said unto him: lekh, shuv l’darkeKHA. “Go, Elijah. Return.”
How is Elijah comforted? How is his faith restored? Through a shift from the eye to the ear, from seeing to hearing, from roeh to shomea. God is not seen in wind, earthquake, or fire. God is the still, small voicein which Elijah hears the call to return from the wilderness of his despair. Will you get up, will you go on, will you respond, will you return…?
The S’fat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic master, said the reward of the religious life is the ability to hear God’s voice amidst the confusion of the world. In fact, if we look to traditional sources, we find hearing again and again emphasized over sight as the metaphoric sense of spiritual intuition. The core statement of daily prayer is not Re’eh, but Sh’ma Yisrael, Hear, oh Israel. Our ancestors at Sinai did not say, “Na’aseh v’nireh”, we shall do and we shall see—but Na’aseh vi’nishmah—we will do and we will hear. Vision is actually the subject of a great deal of admonishment: we read in the second paragraph after the shma: v’lo taturu acharei eynechem—you must not be lead astray by your eyes. The greatest of all possible sins is idol worship, the worship of images, whether a block of wood or a simplistic theological interpretation of the observable world. Hearing, on the other hand, is not a means of explaining the world, but a manner of responding to it, or deriving sustenance within it. We are revived by our ability to hear the holiness resounding in the world, and joining in the sounding of this voice through our own acts of comfoting and celebration, righteous action and deeds of loving kindness. As we read in today’s haftarah of consolation, in a passage that conflates bodily and spiritual needs: hoi, kol tsameh lichu l’mayim—all you who are thirsty come for water, and then: hatu ozneykhem oolichu eylay, shimu ootkhi nafshekhem—incline your ear and come to me. Hear, and give life to your souls.
I actually want to give the last word here to one of my former congregants in New York, Jerry Kisslinger, who, in a statement he delivered at Kol Nidre last year, reflected on the loses his family had sustained over the past year. It is a better articulation of what I’ve been trying to say than anything I could come up with, so I’ll close with his words:
“We have these year-end awards at work drawn on paper plates,” he said “and knowing all my family had been dealing with a very kind colleague at work made up a paper plate award. It calls me a Pillar of Strength. And this felt good at first– a new name, a new story, and a heroic one at that. And then I realized how false it all felt.
What made me so uncomfortable? First of all, there’s nothing heroic about calamity. If an asteroid falls on your house it doesn’t make you a hero. Second, it was just our turn. It happens to everyone, and it’s no badge of honor. But beyond that, the strength that I have that all of us have in these situations seems to me to be very UNPILLARLIKE (to create a word).
Pillars are hard, they’re proud, they are rigid, they crack, they fall and turn to dust. Attending to my family calls for a different kind of strength, more like—and stick with me— an underwater plant on the coral reef, a fern, or a sponge—porous, bending, fluid, and yet tough and tenacious in staying anchored as the waters heave.
As we mark our new year, I find myself choosing between these two kinds of strength, for me embodied in two kinds of prayer: Kaddish and the Sh’ma. I am comforted by both –
But I think Kaddish is more like the pillar. The language, the rhythm, the content, is hard and angular—kaddish evokes fearsome strength, God’s strength. And it evokes death. And It carried me through the early weeks after my father died.
It’s the Sh’ma that really speaks to me now, 9 months out. If the name kaddish sounds like stone sh’ma sounds like wind. It’s about speaking and hearing. It evokes all the people Israel. It speaks of unity. It breathes. It lives.
And here’s the wisdom it suggests. [Sh’ma. Hear. Listen.] Life is interconnected. Cling tenaciously to what matters. Take nothing for granted. Anchor yourself in the strength of others. Join in and connect—the Lord is One. And breathe, breathe deeply.”