Parashat Re’eh: Blessings and Curses, Light and Dark

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel

How does one gather the courage to stand up in the face of opposition? As part of a minority? As a voice of conscience opposite an apathetic mob? What do we do when, surrounded by other beliefs, practices, or behaviors, we know that we must remain steadfast in and vigilant of our own?

Our Torah Portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) provides a number of instructions and warnings related to these kinds of concerns. We are reminded of the reward and punishment system of Blessings and Curses: blessings if we follow God’s commandments, and Curses if we stray.

We will start our study at Deuteronomy 12:29 (as this verse begins the second of the three sections according to a triennial cycle). Here, the text gives us many examples of what happens when we are tempted to be drawn into the worship of other gods, and into the practices of other cultures. There are warnings against avodah zarah, the term used for foreign worship, as well as one verse that fundamentalist readers of the text love to quote:

“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” (Deut 13:1)

Though, in context, this admonition seems related to adding or taking away rituals that might be related to other religions or gods, it is common to see it used to discount innovations or alternative interpretations of the tradition. We are not even allowed to co-opt foreign practices and use them to pray to OUR God.

This certainly seems harsh, and there are innumerable examples to the contrary of times when Judaism did exactly this: take practices from other cultures and incorporate them into our own.

Yet, rather than focusing exclusively on religious practice, I’d like to push us to consider the ethical teachings of Judaism in this light. These reminders pop up in this week’s parasha, as well.

“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the LORD your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 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 kinsman in your land.: (Deut. 15:7-11)

Thus, even if you witness the indifference, ignorance, or apathy of others in your community, you must nevertheless heed God’s commandments to care for the poor and needy. We must resist the temptation towards hatred, indifference, and bigotry that we may see around us. Rather, it is up to each and every one of us as individuals to do the right thing, just as it is up to us as Jews in Covenant with God.

The Rabbis of the Talmud note that the Hebrew grammar in this phrase [Deuteronomy 11:26] is surprising. It begins with the singular and ends with the plural! “What lesson,” they ask, “is buried in that awkward formation?” According to our Sages, we learn from the singular R’eih (“See”) that the mitzvot are given to the entire people—to all Jews as a group. The contours of our religion are not the personal preference of each individual Jew. Yet at the same time, the phrase ends with lifneichem (“before you [all]”), a plural construct, to remind us that each individual must decide whether or not to commit heart, mind, and soul to cultivating our b’rit (“covenant”) with God. (Bradley Shavit Artson, Parashat R’eih, August 13, 2001, in “Today’s Torah,” Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies)

Our Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 54:11-55:5, also alludes to the power of righteousness and justice as God promises to look after the Israelite people.

Perhaps the Blessings and Curses remind us of how we bless and/or curse the society around us. If we treat others with respect and equity, we will reap the blessings of a fair and just society. If we neglect to care for those in need, we curse our future in countless ways.

I look forward to studying with you this Shabbat!

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