By Reb David
Next week we enter the month of Elul, the month of teshuvah (turning and returning) en route to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As if in preparation for Elul, this week’s Torah portion (Re’eh) places in stark relief our choices about spirituality and the messy details of life. This reminder comes at exactly the right time. It begins (Deut. 11:26-28):
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse – blessing, if you obey the linking commands of YHVH your God that I enjoin on you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the linking commands of YHVH your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin on you this day….
SEE! In Hebrew, Re’eh, the name of this week’s portion, seeing is no ordinary word. It’s not like knowing, loving or believing, senses of personal experience within oneself. To see, rather, is to sense beyond oneself to the world beyond – as the world is, and as the world could be. Thus, when Torah asks us to see, Torah asks us to not only know internally, but also dare to perceive playing out in real life. What we’re to see in this way is that we have practical choices that can imbue us with a sense of either blessing or curse. We’re to see both capacity and consequence, our choices and the impact of those choices.
What kind of mindfulness, what kind of vision, does it take to see in that way? Torah asks in a particularly challenging way. In the same portion, Torah promises that “there will be no needy among you… if only you heed YHVH your God and take care to keep all this teaching that I enjoin on you this day” (Deut. 15:4-5). Of course, there are needy among us. Ought we learn that if we all lived our highest spirituality, need would disappear? Maybe so: for instance, if we create a truly just world, perhaps we can conquer poverty and disease for all. Torah calls us to see the hope and possibility of that world.
But Jewish spirituality is less concerned with the so-called world to come than the here and now. As tradition teaches, “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, first finish the planting and then go greet the Messiah” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b). Even at redemption’s edge, this world still comes before the next. Maybe that’s why this week’s portion reverses itself and re-focuses on present reality over future aspiration: even more important than seeing a world without need is seeing the world’s needs as they exist now. Thus, Torah continues (Deut. 15:9-10, 15):
If there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs…. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy.
So first Torah calls us to see an ideal world without need, then calls us to see the actual world and our role in perfecting it. First Torah calls us to see the potentials of blessing and curse, then calls us to see how our choices can lead to one or the other. Seeing is exactly what this time of year is about – not just to think of a spiritual path but actually see ourselves on it, actually walk it, actually look to the path of teshuvah (return) wending through to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That’s the kind of vision we all need now.
Paraphrasing playwright George Bernard Shaw, Robert F. Kennedy said, “Some see the way things are and ask why; I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” Let’s do both. Let’s see the world as it is, and how our choices shape it for blessing and for curse. Then let’s see the world as it could be, and act to bring the world of our vision into reality. Shanah tovah.