Image: Nahant Sunrise from image.org
Re’eh: See the Blessing
by Dr. Nechama Liss-Levinson
The portion Re’eh, chock full of statutes and commandments, begins with the word re’eh, sometimes translated as “behold,” but I prefer the translation “see.”
And what are we supposed to see? “I (Moses? God?) set before you today a blessing and a curse.” How are we supposed to see this? Is it related in any way to how we are supposed to hear, Sh’ma Yisrael, that God is One?
To see something with our own eyes is to perceive it. To hear something with our own ears is to understand it.
Perhaps we can read this opening sentence with a differing punctuation. Perhaps it should be read, “See, I set before you TODAY–hayom–a blessing and a curse.
Each morning when we wake up, we receive the new day. Each morning, in the Shacharit prayers, we say that God renews creation each day. And each day we have choices to make. We have the choice of how we act and react at each moment and each choice point in our day. Do we make the choice to be the person we aspire to be? How do we respond to the difficult people and difficult events that may be strewn in our path?
The psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, wrote profoundly of his experiences during the Holocaust. We can’t control what happens to us, said Frankl. But we can be the ones who choose our responses. He emphasized that our lives are not determined by what happens to us, but by how we choose to respond to what happens to us. And how we choose to respond may depend on our own interpretation of reality.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, wrote of the difference between the events of the day and our interpretation of them. Many things happen during the day and during our lifetimes. But how we experience and record these events in our souls, whether as a blessing or a curse, whether as a chance to fall or a chance to rise up, depends, at least in part, on our own interpretations.
The middle of parashat Re’eh is filled with laws regarding idol worship, false prophets, claiming the land of Israel, animal sacrifice, extensive laws of kashrut, tithing, obligations to help the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the immigrant, freeing slaves and celebrating the pilgrimage festivals. Within this recounting of laws, there are times when we hear of family conflicts (children not following their parents’ path) and national conflict (the people not fulfilling God’s chosen path).
And yet, with all of this, the last sentence of the portion reads, “Each person shall give as they are able, according to the blessing which your God has given to you.”
We begin and end this Torah portion with the word “blessing” sandwiched in the sentence. The opening sentence suggests that we can CHOOSE blessings–to be a blessing, to bring blessing into our lives, literally to SEE the blessings before us. The last sentence asks us to GIVE of our blessings, to offer them to God, to be a blessing to others, to give as we are able. We get some glimpses in the portion of the many ways that we can give to others; giving of what we have so others are not left without.
I think that this beginning and ending offer us a perspective on our lives as we age. We all begin life with a plethora of choices. There are so many choices we will be making–about who we are, our education, our life’s work, our love life, our family, our relationship with God, the kind of person we are, our life’s mission. Then life happens the complex, overflowing journey described in the middle of our portion–with many good things and bad things that come our way, that rock our world and push us to make new choices, sometimes again and again. There are family conflicts and falling out. There are times that we may be distant from God. And there are also times of joy and celebration.
As we move towards the end of our lives, we are more involved with giving our blessings to others than to gathering them for ourselves. There is true joy in being able to reflect on the complexity of our lives, to see–re’eh–and to share these blessings with the larger world.
There is a final thought which I heard from Eitan Cooper. He points out that the last paragraph of Re’eh commands all Jews to appear (ye’ra’eh) before God on the pilgrimage festivals. So, we start the portion with SEEING and end with BEING SEEN. Life involves both seeing what needs to be done and showing up to do what needs doing–seeing and being seen. It is through our actions–of seeing and being seen, of being responsible and responsive, of choosing blessings and sharing these blessings–that we cause the invisible God we worship to be seen and experienced in the world.
Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD is a psychologist, author and social activist. She has written extensively on developmental milestones in the Jewish family, including her book When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing with Shiva and the Year Beyond. Her writing has appeared in Lilith, The Jewish Forward, Kveller, and The Jewish World. Her book When the Hurricane Came, a PJ Our Way book selection, was a Finalist in the National Jewish Book Awards, Children’s Literature. She is currently co-chair of her synagogue’s Uyghur Crisis Response Team.