BS”D By Briah Cahana August 14, 2020
“See! Have vision! Open your eyes to the choices you make that create each day anew.” Parshat Re’eh, with its riveting opening line is a call of accountability to and from the spiritual dimension to stir us awake, remind us of our agency and how we shape our realities for the good or for the bad. What exactly is our vision for ourselves, our smaller units and the world? Is it grand, is it small? What guides it?—Faith and love, joy, spontaneity, justice, inclusion, history, covenantal duty, fear, grief, compassion? What narrations do we weave together in our heads as we make hundreds of choices each day articulating our thoughts into words and into actions?
The Parsha tells us that we can either go the route of blessing or curse. We will receive blessing, if we heed (tishme’u) G-d’s Mitzvot and curses if we do not heed (the Torah uses that same word tishme’u). It seems clear and straightforward, black and white—at least the consequences do. G-d even commands that this bifurcated judgement be crystallized in the material symbol of two mountains in Canaan; the blessing is recited on Har Gerizim and the curse on Har Eval. There are many commentators who are troubled by such a stark understanding of reality. Is this how the world works and if so, what does that mean about our relationship to G-d or our esteemed concept of Tshuvah (repentance)? We know, of course, that G-d is the source of blessing, but can we even imagine that G-d gives us curses? “Heaven forbid!” we say! This discomfort plays out even in our sacred liturgy where we dampen Isaiah’s words “I (the Lord) form light and create darkness, I make peace and create woe ( (רע” (Isaiah 45:7) to “…I make peace and create everything (בורא את הכל). And deeper, is the path of following G-d’s mitzvoth—a halakhic life—ever so black and white that a blessing and curse could be meted out so neatly? Both in classic rabbinic discourse and in Jewish community today, we know that following G-d’s mitzvoth is a process that can lead to different outcomes depending on the specifics of the situation and competing needs. So how do we respond to such a stark worldview that the Torah presents?
The Noam Elimelekh (18th cent) radically transforms the meaning of the first verse through a chassidic interpretation that “blessing” means approaching G-d with Ahava (love), whereas “curse” means coming to G-d with Yirah (fear/awe). For him, there is no state of not being in relationship with G-d or being banished. Rather, there are simply different paths to G-d and sometimes following the mitzvot can be challenging or we might feel further away from them, whereas other times following the mitzvot can come so naturally, like a bee following the scent of flowers that is so incredibly sweet. Do we see the nature of commandments or commitments in a harsh way or in a loving way? Do we think that we are diminishing our will and ourselves to serve G-d or are we growing into our most beautiful selves in relationship with Torah as a guide? In some of our most loving relationships, the will of the other becomes our will. But if fear is the main emotion, that also indicates something important about where we are in the relationship and that more trust needs to be cultivated.
Is one preferable? Love seems preferable to awe, but only after the fact, says Noam Elimelekh. He brings the midrash about how G-d created two large lights in the sky at the beginning of creation, one was Ahava and the other was Yirah. Yirah complained to G-d that there cannot be two equal lights in the sky—only one can rule—thinking that G-d would make Yirah ruler and diminish Ahava. As folkloric stories go, the exact reverse happened. G-d agreed to Yirah and Yirah’s light was diminished into the moon that receives the light of the sun. Yirah’s fear created hierarchy, judgment of good and bad, a dichotomous lens of Har Eval and Har Gerizim. The Ahava, the eternal and unified love is the true reality of G-d’s creation. Further, the verse says that G-d is giving the blessing and the curse today, hayom, meaning that the light of the day is what we must be working toward. When we adopt that view there is only blessing.
Nevertheless, there is an important function of Yirah, it jumps us into action. It creates a tension and clarity within us, a deadline of sorts. It is a call to action and a question to the self: Where do I stand? What do I stand for? And in front of whom do I stand? Last year I was at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh Tevet. Many security guards gathered early in the morning in the quiet women’s section. I later realized that it was for the Women of the Wall gathering. Famous or infamous, having growing up as a feminist religious woman, I was excited to be there. A circle of women in lay clothing faced outwards, protecting the group of women inside who were chanting the Torah portion and raising their voices. Another woman outside the circle yelled at them that they were desecrating the Torah and are false and an embarrassment for Jews. I felt knots in my belly. I was hyper aware of my body in that space and the configuration all around me. When I nudged closer to the circle to hear their services better, one of the outside protectors tightened her grip and told me not to come so close. I stared confused. She asked me, “are you with them or not? You want to come in or out?” In that moment, I felt Yirah all through me. It was more than clear that where I stood was a physical representation of what I stood for. Simply watching curiously from the side was even threatening. So I asked myself the question. And it was obvious. My father taught me to read from the Torah for my bat-mitzvah, (which was Re’eh) and it is one of the most important gifts in my life. In that moment, I felt the urge to put myself into the circle. I clearly believe women may read from the Torah and should have access to it, so what am I doing outside the circle?
In moments like those, we get insight into the right course of action for ourselves. It requires deep listening, “tishme’u” as the Torah claims. Sometimes we are guided by Ahava and sometimes by Yirah, but if we are guided by a deep conviction that we are building toward more G-dliness, kedusha, connection and love then I believe we’re on the right path and that blessing will come.