By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17)
“Time works both for us and against us depending upon how we use it.” These precious words uttered by the great David Ben Gurion were for one unknown admirer a call to action–to pay close attention: “See, re’eh, every day that we can choose to make time work for us–individually, communally and universally–if we seek to see G-d’s Presence in each other and in every other human being, through introspection and reflection recognize that the image of the Divine simultaneously resides within each of us.”
This sage wisdom also finds its inspiration in the opening verse of this week’s parashat Re’eh: “Re’eh Anokhi noten llifneikhem hayom brakha uk’lalah: See, I have set before all of you, (the community of Israel) blessing and curse, blessing if you obey the commandments of Adonai which I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not” (Deut. 11:26) The language here is interesting because Moses delivers his plea in second-person plural, lifneikhem–before all of you.
This is different than another important sermon Moses will give in one month in parashat Nitzavim:: “Re’eh natati lifanecha hayom et hachayim v’et hatov v’et hamavet v’et hara: See I have set before each of you, today, life and prosperity; death and adversity.” (Deut. 30:15) Here, we’ll view the same command re’eh (see), but the focus will change to lifanekha, before you singular.
So why then should it matter? Plural or singular? And what does this grammar lesson have to do with making our time matter? Well, the answer lies in the fact that soon it will be Rosh Chodesh Elul, and Elul is an especially significant opportunity to use time effectively to make our lives matter, as a community and as individuals–in plural and in singular.
The Sages tell us that the first day of Elul is the day on which Moses went up to Mount Sinai for the second time (Exodus 34:1-10). And forty days later, our great prophet descended the mountain, bringing down with him the mitzvot (commandments) to our ancestors. And if you do the math, that 40th day corresponds to Yom Kippur. Thus, from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, tradition calls on us to use our time wisely–to consider our relationship to Torah, G-d, and the world, both our personal relationship and our communal connection. How have we done as individuals? How have we done together? I would add that having practiced the command re’eh twice on the way–once during parashat Re’eh and once during parashat Nitzavim–we should be ready to commit ourselves when we reprise Nitzavim on Yom Kippur morning and commandment to see and witness (and rededicate) ourselves collectively and individually to our brit with G-d and each other, from which we may have strayed in one way or another.
We enter into this month of Elul–this season of teshuvah–with the knowledge that the brit between us and G-d is both communal and personal. The Torah that we affirm today, in a month, during the High Holy Days, and throughout our lives belongs to us together as a whole and to each of us alone. We are responsible for it collectively and individually. Elul gives us ample time to deepen this knowledge and strengthen (or repair) our personal and shared commitments as Jewish people and as human beings.
So when G-d commands us v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha–to, as individuals, love our neighbors–each one of us may do an excellent job at fulfilling this important mitzvah. But true community will only come to be if we summon a shared effort of love and mutual respect.
Or, when we broadly declare the importance of refraining from lashon hara (gossip), we can accord communal value to the decency of public speech. But, if we don’t commit personally to derekh eretz (to civility) and to betzelem Elohim (that we are all created in G-d’s image and have intrinsic worth), what good will our communal values be?
We can show up on Yom Kippur, serious about teshuvah, and G-d will forgive us–but only as individuals. Teshuvah has a broader component that pushes us out into the community toward those we’ve hurt. And only with that relational effort can we begin to complete our turnaround.
To remind us of these important consideration, at the conclusion of our prayer throughout Elul, we blow the shofar to supplement sight with sound: to further awaken in us this sacred and powerful work of accountability, of communal and personal responsibility. Elul gives us sufficient time to prepare for the Yamim Noraim, and together with the High Holy Days, we give this complex work of teshuvah the time it deserves. In doing such, we can make fuller progress in our teshuvah. If we cram it all in to Ten Days of Awe, we will find our improvement much harder to attain. Remember the words of David ben Gurion: “Time works both for us and against us depending upon how we use it.”
So let us not delay. Let us use our time well–to be more aware; to pay better attention; to see (with our eyes and/or with our soul): Re’eh! And with the help of this moral vision, this ethical imagination, this spiritual insight and G-d’s grace–let us choose blessing: by turning inward and improving ourselves; by turning to one another and making ourselves stronger together. And let the work of our teshuvah–both our individual and collective efforts–bring healing and wholeness to the world around us, as well as goodness, blessing, and life. Early wishes for a shanah tovah u’m’tukah, a good and sweet year. Amen v’amen!
Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).