We’re standing at the bottom of a 215 foot waterfall in NY’s Cayuga State Park, amazed. How does something like this form, exactly here, exactly like this? There is a little sign about the kind of rock, the force of the water, how over 10,000 years… I read it carefully, impressed by the details of geography and geology, and yet, one wonders… in the face of such magnificent nature, what is the explanation for that?
When all else fails, there is always G-d.
Re’e – on seeing:
In his lectures about Buddhism and Psychology, Robert Wright shares a realization his brother had: “Girls don’t look at me”, said the middle aged man, “not because they think I’m unattractive, but simply, because they don’t see me!”
It’s a great exercise, to try to see “different” people then we’re used to, different age groups, different social groups; places we thought we knew; colors we took for granted. I remember having to practice sketching at some point of my life and realizing trees were not all “shamrock”, grass green but can be dark, light, and even silver-olive, brown, purple; and what about their shapes? The various seasons?
How much do we really see?
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses opens with the famous word: Re’e! See! We can be commanded to see! We can learn to see good!
Seeing is one of the first things G-d does in the creation of the world: “וירא אלוהים את האור”…. G-d sees the light and qualifies it as “good”. He can then distinguish it from darkness.
We are told about Abraham, walking with Isaac to the mountain that “he lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar”(Genesis 22: 4). The midrash tells us that he then turned to Isaac and asked him, ‘do you see anything on one of the mountains’? Isaac replied: ‘yes, I see a pillar of fire standing, connecting heavens and earth’. He told the lads traveling with his: “you stay here with the donkey” (22:5). Donkey, in Hebrew is chamor – חמור like chomer, חומר, materialism, as if saying, ‘you who can’t see that place, will remain down here’.
But the sense of sight can also fool us: Isaac was blind, some say because of the knife glistening blade at the time of his binding. Perhaps symbolically, that was the point he stopped “seeing” parts of the world around him, especially those related to his family. Even though he successfully dug wells and dealt with his neighbors, of some things at home, he was not aware.
We can be led astray by sights and visions, by outward beauty, attractions, distractions, and there are plenty of examples for that too.
What’s so critical about reminding us to see especially now?
In these Torah portions the people are about to enter the Land of Israel. Unlike the desert, in the Land there will be no obvious miracles. In such a situation, “seeing” – being aware of our surroundings, remembering G-d’s gifts and our spiritual path, will be harder and harder. It is now that we are taught to see; see any way we can; open up and see.
Having clear choices:
Sforno who lived in the 15-16th century Italy gives one of my favorite albeit chilling commentaries to this opening verse: “see, I set before blessing and curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26). He answers an unasked question: what do you mean ‘I set before you blessing and curse? Didn’t G-d set many more things before the people and before us??’ but Sforno says that “see” here is a warning, and that it should be read like this: ‘watch out! There is only “blessing” and “curse”, not anything else. The middle grey mush is nothing. If we don’t walk in the way of blessing, that in itself is already a curse.’
That place I show you…
The Torah’s 5th book, Dvarim (Deuteronomy or “things”) is considered largely Moses’ “rerun”. But if it’s a rerun, what do we need it for?? It’s so much work to write a Torah, so a whole book just to repeat what was already said? A more careful read reveals that there are differences and exactly those, are important to our understanding.
One of the things our 5th Book highlights is the connection with the Land of Israel, a land which is nothing like Egypt; a land that G-d inquires about constantly (11:10-12); a good land, with flowing water, vegetation to eat, and resources where you’ll lack nothing (8:7-10); a land that will reflect the Torah you receive for ever more, so that even thousands of years from now, those choices of blessing and curse will still be visible on the same mountains (11:29-30):
כט וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל. 29 And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.
ל הֲלֹא-הֵמָּה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, בְּאֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי, הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּעֲרָבָה–מוּל, הַגִּלְגָּל, אֵצֶל, אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה. 30 Are they not beyond the Jordan, behind the way of the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites that dwell in the Arabah, over against Gilgal, beside the terebinths of Moreh
What is the explanation for that?
When all else fails, there is always G-d.