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Parashat 08/06/2010

Parashat Re’eh
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

The blessing, that you will listen to the commandments of H” your Gd … and the curse if you don’t listen to the commandments of H” your Gd, and turn aside from the path which I command you today. (11:27-28)

There is a distinction between the way the blessing and the curse are introduced.  The blessing is introduced with the word asher, which has the connotation of “when,” in the sense of something inevitable happening.  The curse, on the other hand, is introduces with the word im, which means “if” – something that is in doubt.  Rashi comments on asher, that it implies “the blessing is conditional upon your listening to Gd’s Word,” which actually sounds more like im than asher!  However Siftei Chachamim (a supercommentary on Rashi) elaborates: Asher indicates that this is H”‘s Will.  Ba’al haTurim to the same verse comments that in the verse of b’rachah it says et haB’rachah where the (untranslatable) Hebrew particle et has the implication of inclusion or expansion.  On the other hand, the next verse begins v’hak’lalah, where the particle v’ (usually translated either “and” or “or”) in this case has the implication of disjunction or limitation.

Now the beginning of our Parashah clearly indicates that we have, both as individuals (re’eh! See [singular]) and as a community (anochi noten lifneichem I place before you [plural]), free will to choose either the blessing and the curse (as will be stated explicitly later on in Sefer Devarim).  Yet the language of the first few verses that we considered above seems to indicate that our will is not quite so free after all.

I recently read a discussion by a contemporary Rabbi that addresses this point (and I apologize that I can’t remember who it was).  He points out that ideally, Good and Evil in the world should be in exact balance – 50/50.  That way our choices are perfectly free; there is no tendency on the part of the universe to go one way or the other.  Our tradition tells us that at each point in our lives we should view ourselves as if our merits and our demerits are exactly in balance, so that the next moral choice we make will tip the balance one way or the other.  In fact, we are to view the universe as a whole as being exactly balanced in this way, so that the fate of the cosmos itself hangs on our moral choices.  It’s quite a responsibility!

However, since the world is not ideal, and since “the thoughts of a person’s heart are evil from our youth,” Gd was not able to create the world in this exact 50/50 balance.  A Midrash teaches that Gd created many worlds, all based on the principle of strict justice (midat haDin), before realizing that they could not survive such a rigorous criterion.  Human beings after all are finite, limited creatures, and as such are not capable of living perfection, at least not without great discipline and effort at refinement of character; even the greatest of our leaders and ancestors evidenced slight imperfections (Moshe at the rock for example), how much more so the rest of us.  Gd needed to preponderate His Mercy (midat haRachamim) over His Justice in order for the world to survive, let alone for it to evolve into the perfectly integrated, organic whole that is the fulfillment He planned for it.  Thus our Sages tell us that Gd created t’shuvah (repentance/return) before creating the world itself, so that human beings could reconnect with Gd and actually undo the damage wrought by our incorrect choices.

Perhaps we can use this perspective on the blessings and curses.  If the world were able to be perfectly balanced between Good and Evil, the blessings and the curse could both be introduced in the same way.  Since, however, it is necessary for Mercy to predominate over Strict Justice, the verses have an asymmetry to them.  Justice will give way to Mercy, Gd’s Will will be done, human beings can choose Good over Evil or Gd forbid the other, but ultimately Gd’s purpose in creating the universe will prevail.  As we will read in Parashat Nitzavim, we will eventually do t’shuvah, Gd will send the Redemption, and the world will be perfected so that Gd can, once again, dwell amongst us.  May we see it speedily in our day!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 2

R. Yehoshua ben Levi said… “The Tablets were the work of Gd, and the script was the writing of Gd engraved onto the Tablets.” (Shemot 32:16) – do not read “engraved” (charut) but “freedom” (cherut), for only a person who engages in learning Torah is free.

Torah study is not simply an intellectual exercise.  While the intellect is certainly involved in reading, understanding, and clarifying the multiple layers of meaning in our sacred texts, ultimately the purpose is to put our individual minds in tune with the Source of our texts and our traditions, Gd.  When our mind expands to encompass the infinite we find that we are no longer bound to anything ephemeral; whatever impinges on us, good, bad or indifferent, cannot affect our unbounded consciousness, just as nothing on land or in the air can disturb the depths of the infinite ocean.  Gd in His great Mercy has given every individual human being the ability to reach that state of freedom.  Our mission on earth is to take advantage of the magnificent opportunity we have been given.