Parashat Re’eh begins with God telling the Israelites, “See, I have put before you a blessing and a curse…” Basically, if we follow God’s ways we will be blessed, and if we follow strange gods, we will be cursed. The word re’eh means “see,” but in this case, it’s not, “hey, look at this, a blessing and a curse!” The verb is in the imperative, See! As in “pay attention,” or “wake up and smell the coffee.”
The Israelites are at the end of a 40 year journey that will culminate with their entrance into the promised land, but the land is full of idol worshipers and people who don’t behave towards others the way God wants us to behave. So before the laws of kashruth are repeated, before the holiday observances are ordered and before we’re told the proper way to treat slaves, widows and the poor, God says that we’ll need to wipe out the idol worshiping societies that are currently living in the land we are to possess. I find that hard to reconcile. It’s troubling, but it reminds me of a T-shirt I once saw that said, “lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.”
Imagine the Israelites settling in a land filled with people who worship “false gods,” who perform human sacrifices and don’t have laws requiring humane treatment of people, animals and the land, and trying to follow the commandments as God has given them. These commandments were designed to separate the Jews from the rest of the community. The question is, why?
We tend to adapt to our environment, and God wants us to carefully choose that environment. We don’t allow our children to go to parties if we suspect there may be alcohol or drugs, we try to live in an area with a strong Jewish community, we get the junk food out of the house before we go on a diet. It’s easier to resist temptation if it isn’t there.
God didn’t create a perfect world, and certainly didn’t create perfect people. We have the capacity to choose, where we live, how we dress, what we eat, how we behave. Most of us choose to behave in a civilized manner. We choose to live within a secular society, and we all have varying degrees of religious observance. We are blessed and we are cursed at the same time, actually, in the same sentence. We are blessed to live in a time and place where we can be free to embrace our Jewish identity, to practice our Judaism in a way that works for us. But I think it’s the Chinese who summed up the curse part very well… may you live in interesting times.*
*updating to note that this “curse” is neither ancient nor Chinese, but attributed in some form to a few different individuals, including Joseph Chamberlain (see Wikipedia on this)