This week’s torah portion Re’eh takes place on the verge of a great transition. The people are about to enter the land of Israel, and Moses gives a grand speech to help the people prepare, but there’s only one problem: he will not be entering the land of Israel with them. He has never been to Israel, and he never will have the chance to go to Israel. He has heard that it is a land of great blessing, but he also knows that the challenges will be far from over.
So what kind of speech should Moses give? Does Moses really have something to offer, really having no insight whatsoever into what the people are going to be going through?
Moses starts this week’s with the word Re’eh, which means "See!" or "Look!".
The Italian 16th century commentator Ovadiah ben Ya'akov Seforno says that Moses is telling people to pay close attention, to not be half present, half somewhere else as we tend to be most of the time. This is an especially important reminder given what he is about to say next:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See I set before you today blessing and curse.
Blessing and curse. Two things. Perhaps if the people are not paying full attention, they will only hear one or the other. They will hear the blessing OR they will hear the curse, so Moses calls to them and says, "Re’eh!", "Pay attention!, you have before you both blessing and curse".
When faced with transitions into the unknown, it is hard to hold onto the full range of possibilities that may lay ahead. Oftentimes we find ourselves assuming either the best or the worst. Perhaps someone is starting a new job and they just keep thinking about how great it is going to be, to leave all of the problems of their old job, and they are only seeing the blessings that lay ahead, forgetting that it is unlikely that their new job will be totally perfect. Or perhaps someone’s child is leaving for college, and the parent can only think of their grief how much of a gap it will leave in their life and not the new opportunities that they can now come their way.
But if we pay full attention and if we really see, we can remember that every transition comes with both blessings and curses.
Moses can’t know what is going to happen to the people but he can remind them of this core truth: that what lies ahead is both blessings and curses.
Transitions bring the blessings of new and unexpected sources of pleasure, sources of learning, sources of growth, opportunities to practice new skills and to accomplish things we never thought we would be able to and new relationships. Transitions also bring the curses of loss, of grief, of regret, of longing for what was, of fear of the unknown, of distrust.
It may be tempting to skip over the curses part, to 'look on the bright side', to 'focus on the positive'. But I'm afraid that sometimes when we do so, we miss out on witnessing important parts of our reality.
As Moses says later on in Deuteronomy, "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, so choose life". Choose life and choose blessing, but before doing so, acknowledge also that death and curse are also present.
We often do not choose to go through transitions and they sometimes show up when we might rather they didn’t. But when we come to them, may we each hear the voice of our inner Moses saying, "Re-eh! Pay full attention to everything that is going on and that may come your way!" And so may our eyes be fully open to the blessings and the curses and the joys and the sorrows so that we may step into this new reality fully present and fully prepared, and fully ready to choose life wherever it may be bringing us.
So let’s start this off Jewish-style, by asking a question.
What do we use words for?
Words, our tradition teaches us, have power. We can use them to hurt and to heal, to build and tear down, create and destroy. The universe, with all its wonders, was created with words. This week, our parsha has laws about vows. Who can make them. Who can abridge them. What has to be done with them. What’s so important about making promises? We do it all the time, right?
God used words to create reality. And so, in fact, do we. When we make a vow—even just a “sure, I’ll put the trash out later,” and how much more so an actual promise, an oath--we create a future reality. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, quoting Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, calls this “performative utterance.” We create that obligation. We create that future.
What’s another word for an obligation? A covenant. Like the covenant, for example, between God and Israel, one that has stood the test of time for millennia. Or the promise God made never to destroy humanity by flood, no matter how annoying we may be.
When someone says “Behold, you are betrothed to me” under the chuppah, they’re not describing a marriage, they’re creating it. When the Rabbinical court, the Bet Din, used to announce the new moon, they weren’t just saying “Hey, we can’t see the moon tonight”—they were creating a new month! When someone asks me to do something and I say, “consider it done,” I’m not speaking metaphorically; they know that they can rest assured it will be completed. As it is said, “You must believe in things that are not true. How else can they become?”
What else do promises do? They create trust. I trust, when someone gives me their word, that they will keep it, and the people who know me are aware that my word is my bond. Our courts, our governments, our social and political institutions, all of these are built on a foundation of trust. Without trust, our relationships break down. A free society simply cannot exist without trust. We must always, always strive to be worthy of the trust others place in us. When we give our word, it must always hold the weight of the world.
And now, I trust that Liz will lead us in Musaf.
Chevrei Tzedek is community built and community run. We rotate who gives sermons. On this blog, you will see a variety of styles, reflecting the diversity of our community.