There are two ways to communicate a message: one is through story where the message is more hidden and up to the listener or reader to extract. The other is through a more open declaration. When one reads through the first of the five books of the Torah, Berishis (Genesis), one encounters seemingly simple “stories,” which from a pure literary point of view are some of the best in the world. At the same time, it contains very deep and essential material that address all basic problems of humanity and our existence– problems of marriage, sibling rivalry, murder, growth and development, and the tragic fall through sin.
The style of the last of the five books, Devarim, is quite different. The lessons woven within the many stories and history of the Jewish people in the book Bereishis are now stated succinctly and directly, as it records Moses’ final message to the Jewish people delivered during the last weeks of his life.
The name of this week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, which means, “see.” It begins what is perhaps the most important message in the entire Chumash, “See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” The blessing will come when we fulfill G-d’s commandments and the curse if they abandon them. The choice is ours.
This compelling theme appears again (chapter 30:15) during the portion of Netzavim, where we find a parallel statement. The passage again begins with the word re’eh (“see I have set before you…”), but three choices are now set before us: between life and death, good and bad, and blessing and curse. All of these choices are incorporated into the final punch line of this unit of verses …”and you shall choose life!”
Choose life! Why is this final command necessary? Who would not choose life over death? And who doesn’t want blessings rather than curses? Furthermore, why is there this constant emphasis on the negative being “set before us”?
The answer has to do with a deeper understanding of “free choice.” Free choice is not simply the ability to choose. Rather it is the ability to choose in a context where the distinction between good and evil, life and death, and blessings and curses can become blurred. Only then can there be true “freedom” and true merit in our decisions. It is for this reason- to create this tension- that the opposite of good is placed before us.
Every day of our lives we face a series of choices: between good and evil, blessing and curse and life affirming actions. On the surface, the choice is not always clear. There are competing desires inside us that can make death appear to be life, curses appear as a blessing, and doing “the right thing” seem impossible. It is then that we dig deep and remember the command to “choose life.”
The mystics further relate that the first letters of the Hebrew words for “blessing”(brocha), “good” (tov) and “life’ (chaim) spell the Hebrew word betach, which means “sure,” “confidence” or “trust.” Trust in God is the fullest manifestation of our faith in Him, and is an acronym for these three positive choices. It is one of the key ingredients for making difficult decisions. And when we uncover our trust in God, He then gives us confidence in ourselves, empowering us to pursue those positive goals that we define for ourselves.
The verb “see” used in the above passages implies that the choices all have to do with sight. To be sure, there is another verb which is often used to convey the same message “hear”- as in “Hear O’ Israel…” These instructions clearly do not refer to the physical senses, but rather to some type of awareness. Likewise, in colloquial expressions, when we want to make sure the person understands we may often ask “do you hear” or “do you see what I mean?” In the Torah, these two verbs convey two levels of perception. “Hearing” refers to a more distant and indirect contact with a matter whereas “seeing” refers to a more tangible and potent experience. Thus, what is being communicated in the above verses is that the power of free choice, the ability to determine our own destiny, is something that we must not just hear. Rather we must strive to see and experience it in the most tangible manner.
This is particularly relevant in today’s world where opposing world views, philosophies, or religions may communicate a different message- one of determinism or even the glorification of death.
But the title of this Torah portion and the message of its opening line covey a different message that must be “seen”- internalized. As Maimonides writes: “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands…This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written “See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]” and “See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse]”…
This Torah portion of Re’eh is always read the Shabbat before the month of Ellul in the Jewish calendar. Ellul is a month that prepares us for the High Holidays and is permeated with the flavor of teshuva. It is the most auspicious time of the year for self improvement and change. As we enter into this mindset and get into gear for the process of critical introspection, we hear the verse beginning with “see” to remind us that there is still the possibility, and urgency, to change direction, to fix our past mistakes, and to earn the merit of “choosing life.”