Seeing is Believing

This week’s Parasha Re’eh could be understood as Judaism’s take on the figure of speech seeing is believing. The thread of seeing pops up in this portion again and again, like a prairie dog raising its head from its burrow to check out the situation above ground.

Our portion begins with God’s instruction, See I have set before you blessing and curse.” God promises blessings if His commands are obeyed and curses if not. We are not told this time around, listen to Me, but see, it is right before your eyes what you are supposed to do and what you are not supposed to do. There’s no denying what I ask of you. As long as B’nai Israel (the Children of Israel) kept their eyes focused where they were supposed to and by association acted in accordance, they would be blessed. But look in another direction, in other words look and be led astray to action antithetical to God’s commands, then curses will follow. The phrase “monkey see monkey do” comes to mind.

Lest they be tempted to look in another direction, the children of Israel are told in no uncertain terms, “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their alters, smash their pillars put their sacred posts to the fire and cut down the images of their gods obliterating their name from that site.”

Pretty non-PC behavior in this diversity-celebrating culture of ours. But this year, for the first time the verse began to make sense to me when “seen” as it were through the lens of “seeing is believing.” The easiest example I can think of to illustrate this is the image of a Christmas tree hung with tinsel, berries, ornaments and lights. Could there be a more luxuriant tree? And is there a Jewish child on earth who, after seeing one, doesn’t say, Mommy can we have a Christmas tree, too.”? Is there a Jewish parent who isn’t somewhat relieved when January rolls around and the imagery turns secular once again?

The answer is not to destroy our neighbor’s Christmas trees (and as Plaut teaches us this command to destroy pagan sites was considered obligatory only in Eretz Yisrael) but to be sure we focus our children’s gazes and hearts where they belong — on Jewish images and Jewish life. It must have been a hard sell to turn one’s gaze from lofty mountains and pillars to the demands of an unseen God. But no harder then than it is today.

After a forty-year journey fraught with signs and wonders and horrors and destruction one can imagine that God wanted to be sure that He had His Children’s attention. And what do we say to our kids when we really want them to understand something, when we want to be sure in no uncertain terms that we have their attention? We say in preamble, Look at me. This is what Re’eh is about. It would not do to have the visual attractions — lofty mountains, luxuriant trees — tempt His people away. Re’eh is God’s way of saying, “Look at me, I am telling you some very important things.”

The theme of seeing reappears in verse eight. You shall not act at all as we now act here every man as he sees fit (in the Plaut it is translated every man as he pleases but the actual phrase is “Beinav” or “in his eyes”.) Once the Children of Israel come into the promised land, Moses is telling them they may not act as they see fit but as God sees fit for them. Parents are not clairvoyant but we often have a pretty good handle on seeing the possible consequences of some of our children’s actions. It is the same in Re’eh. The vision of the Children of Israel is immature; they have little ability to see beyond the present. Thus as they come into their destiny to be a light unto the nations, they must first be pointed in the right direction and be sure there are no distractions.

There is a personal dimension to this portion Re’eh because ten years ago my son chanted it for his Bar Mitzvah. Over the past weeks as I have been preparing I have heard his voice, still high and sweet, the grace notes to my own chanting. But even better I see him in my mind’s eye as he was on that day, smooth cheeked, still shorter than me, the hands that held the yad (the Torah pointer) had still a shadow of softness.

Re’eh, See, this day I have set before you blessing and curse. May we strive never to lose sight of what God demands of us this Shabbat and always.

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