Some years ago I spoke on this parasha, Re’eh or SEE. It was also my son’s Bar Mitzvah portion and we spent many evenings discussing what it meant to choose between blessing and curse. My struggle with the portion was ironic in that I couldn’t see anything new in Re’eh to bring to you. Although tradition say of Torah, “turn it over and over for all the world is in it. “ I found myself turning in circles, unable to find new insights in Re’eh. What wasn’t I seeing?
And then bit by bit two intertwined themes began to reveal themselves to me. One is the theme of the senses. The other is an ongoing command that B’nai Israel (the Children of Israel) are to follow only the one God whom they came know, came to experience during the Exodus.
“See this day I set before you blessing and curse, blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God but turn away from the path which I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods whom you have not experienced….Take care to observe all the laws and rules I have set before you this day.”
These are the operative words in these verses — re’eh, see; thsmoo, hear and ooshmartem, guard or keep. Re’eh appears in its simplest form — second person singular and it is translated literally — SEE. the choice is simple here it is blessing or curse.
Tishm’oo and ooshmartem make it more interesting both are in the second person plural. Were we in the south we would translate these words blessing if yall obey and curse if yall do not. Perhaps the text is telling us that the choice between the good and evil falls to the every individual and the fulfillment of this choice demands the efforts and commitment of the group.
Tishm’oo, literally hear, is translated as obey; ooshmartem which literally means guard or keep is translated as observe. If seeing is believing, then hearing is obeying and observing is doing. I found it interesting to ponder the difference between what it means to observe in English and how Torah understands the word. Use observe in an English sentence and the implication is to look at something from a distance with almost scientific detachment. By contrast in Jewish life, an observant Jew is one who manifests no distance at all but instead lives in an intimate throw yourself into it connection with the mitzvot. To be observant in the context of Torah is to keep the commandments as if with all of one’s senses.
Newborns have no way of “making sense” of their world apart from their sensory experiences. They react instantly to their mother’s voice, a voice science now tells us is heard in utero. When feeding, an infant’s eyes are at optimal focusing distance from its mother’s or father’s eyes. The infant’s sensory experiences — sight, sound, smell, touch and even taste — initiate a visceral bond unlike any other on earth.
And so it was between B’nai Israel and the one God who brought them out of Egypt and the bondage of slavery to Pharaoh. They experienced God first hand and taste by gathering and being sustained by manna. They experienced God first sight in a pillar of cloud and fire. They heard God’s immutable voice through Moses’ reluctant one and offered up burnt sacrifices, experiencing a connection to God via their sense of smell, that sense most rooted in emotional memory. In Re-eh, God is reminding B’nai Israel now forty years from their infancy, of their sensory relationship to Him.
To be blessed is easy — re-eh tishmoo see and hear. To be cursed actually takes some work — do not obey. turn from the path; follow other gods whom you do not know. Not until we follow other gods whom we have not experienced will curses rain down upon us.
God is reminding us of the power of our senses, in yada, in knowing Him as the undeniable reason to obey His commandments. This God revealed Himself to us, allowing us to experience Him on Mt. Sinai yet bamboozling our senses in that lightning was heard and thunder was seen, How could one even consider following a god who had not been experienced in such dramatic and indelible fashion?
This reminder appears thrice more in Re-eh. If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent saying “let us follow and worship another god” whom you have not experienced do not heed [him]. This prophet, sent by God, we are told, appears as an outsider. He was not part of the Exodus. Imagine him as an observer in the English sense trying to tempt B’nai Israel away from the God whose true signs and wonders they have witnessed for going on four decades. Punishment is meted out swiftly — he shall be put to death… thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.
But then comes the third reference, the third caution against following and now worshipping unknown gods. And there is one crucial addition. If your brother, your own mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom or your closest friend entices you in secret saying “Come let us worship other gods” whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced. It does not take much of a leap to assume this person — brother, son daughter wife friend — was close enough to have experienced God as well and there he is trying to get his brethren to follow an unknown god. What was he doing at the foot Mt Sinai when God was laying down the Law? I was reminded of the Wicked son of the Seder who asks, “What does all of this mean to you?” This wicked son by virtue of his question holds himself apart from the community, a mere observer instead of a member of the community of B’nai Israel enjoined to observe the commandments.
And what is to be done with this subverter? Nothing as simple as put him to death to sweep out his evil as in the prior situation No, the instructions are “do not assent or give heed, show him no pity or compassion.. let your hand be the first to put him to death and the hand of the rest of the people thereafter. Stone him to death,…Thus all Israel will hear (notice the reference to the senses again) and be afraid and such evil things will not be done again in your midst. The punishment of one who tries to tempt his brothers from God is so much direr for the one who was their intimate.
How might this instance relate to us — we who have had no direct sensory experience of the God of Israel? By the time of Re-eh, all of those who had been at the foot of Sinai have died out. Somewhere along the way we have God’s mention that the Sinai experience was for all of you who are here and all of you who are not…..And Re’eh also gives us atah v’avotecha — you and your fathers. This is the link between the Children of Israel and us. We now move beyond seeing is believing , hearing is obeying and observing is doing. Avotechah your fathers moves us into the realm of inheriting is experiencing. Atah v’avotecha, you and your fathers. That our fathers (and mothers) experienced God upon Mount Sinai, then so did we.
What might be left for us to experience physically? This is the $64G shekel question. How can we ever connect physically with a God who no longer manifests himself physically? What is left for us?
The sight of the letters in a Torah scroll? The sound of the Shofar?
The scent of Havdallah spices? The taste of apple and honey?
The cool smooth feel of Kotel stones beneath our yearning fingers?
Atah v’avotecha. you and your fathers opens the door to our own knowing and experiencing God. Re’eh, perhaps, helps us to see it.