By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17)
This week’s sedra is Parshat Re’eh, which starts with the exclamation, “See, I have placed before you blessings and curses.” In other words, there are transparent, visible blessings and curses that we can see, just sitting in the road, depending on the choices we make. (That is not to say that there aren’t challenges or rewards that are not merit-based also, but good choices or bad ones follow this prescription.)
Last week’s Parsha, Ekev, starts out with the wise advice to mindfully go through life and notice what we often mindlessly trample and ignore. As Holmes told Watson, “You see, but you don’t observe.”
The anomaly of seeing things is that our capacity to see is limited by what we see, and forgetting that there is often much more that we don’t see. If we see a planet, it exists; but if our capacity to see a planet is not accessible, we arrogantly deny its existence, rather than recognize our own nearsightedness. Aristotle declared, based on an examination of his wife’s mouth, that women have 28 teeth and men (based on his own choppers) have 32. He then made assumptions based on that observation. As it turns out, his wife was either so young that all of her teeth hadn’t come in, or so old that some had fallen out. As smart as he was, Aristotle was limited by what he could see.
In an incident inspired by “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, when my neighbor had a garage sale, a customer saw something he liked, and agreed with the seller on a price and a time to pick up the item. Later, another customer, a local woman saw the same item, and said, “I have to get this for my husband’s birthday.” The seller told her, “I’ve already committed to selling it to someone else.” In the ensuing small talk, the parties discovered that the original customer was the woman’s husband. I’m not sure how it shook out, but I was imagining the man coming back to pick up the item, being told it was no longer available, and becoming angry that the seller had reneged—only to discover that his wife was the reason, and that it was all done out of love. What often gets us into trouble interpersonally is seeing half the picture, and thinking we know it all.
This Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh Elul, the preparatory month for the days of judgment. Most of us, when we under-perform in some capacity, want to be understood in a broader context. “Yes, I was a day late with the report—because my appendix burst, and I was in the hospital.” The boss may be harsh, because he can’t see your ruptured appendix, so his information and vision are limited. When Rosh Hashana rolls around, few of us will be able to tell G-d, “I aced it this year. I was perfect!” We will hope that G-d looks at our circumstances and weaknesses, and is merciful.
If we are harsh to those around us, and overly judgmental with our impaired vision, G-d just might judge us similarly, not taking into account our own mitigating circumstances. So as the Parsha begins, see the blessings, bless others, and be blessed. The route by which you curse others only assures you an angry, cursed existence. In my community work at The ARK, I see this over and over again. Regardless of their challenges, some people can see blessings all around them, while other people get angry and constantly live in darkness.
One of the allusions to the month of Elul is the verse (Psalm 27;13), “If only I believed enough to see the goodness of G-d.” The word in Hebrew of “If only” is “Luleh,” which is the word “Elul” spelled backwards. The unique task of preparing for the day of judgement is to be less judgmental and negative. The world is full of beauty and wonderful people, and all we have to do is see the goodness all around us. It boils down to having faith and believing that G-d runs the world, and that the world is good. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but G-d has our best interests in operation and has a broader view than we are capable of.
As such, the short-term challenges can often be the long-term riches. I often think back to my childhood in a predominantly gentile area, and my longing to be in Skokie, which was very Jewish then. I think that the experience gave me the heightened sense of my heritage, which I might have taken for granted elsewhere. I always felt like I was living in the “Annie Hall” scene in which the protagonist becomes a chasid when they offer him ham and mayo on white bread. I’ve been blessed to serve our community for many decades, and it may all be attributed to living next to people who made Homer Simpson seem like an urbane, cultured gentleman by comparison.
The key to Elul is that “if only” I could see the constant good around me and live a life of gratitude instead of one of emptiness, how different my life could be. If I really believed that G-d is always rooting for me to grow and thrive, I would remember to always take the high road.
This story of Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Yehudah Berlin is often retold: his cheder teacher once told his mother that he wouldn’t amount to much intellectually, and that she should take him to be an apprentice shoemaker. The young boy overheard his mother’s disappointment, and then and there committed himself to becoming the person he knew he could be. He became a prolific author, and the head of the greatest Jewish educational venue of its time.
This should be the year where we see the good surrounding us, and especially the good inside ourselves, and maximize the upcoming year. All of us should be blessed with a beautiful Shanah Tovah, filled with light.
Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.