Re’eh: At the crossroads

See, I place before you today blessing and curse. (Devarim 11:26)

Standing at the bifurcation
looking down each path,
beset by doubt.
Knowing that the route
plagued by brambles
may yet be the right one,
that the beckoning sun-lit way
may end in darkness.
Impelled endlessly
towards further crossroads,
where the trails, again, diverge.

This Parasha, named like many others after its opening word, starts as follows, “Re’eh anochi noten lifnechem ha’yom berachah u’klalah – See, today I am setting before you blessing and curse.”

The Vilna Gaon parses this sentence word by word. He notes that the injunction starts with the singular “Re’eh – see,” (although it continues with “lifnechem – before you,” in the plural). He teaches as follows, “”See” in the singular, so that a person will not say: What am I, that I should choose for myself a good path if most of the world is behaving wickedly. That is why it is written: “See” in the singular, see what is before you; you do what you need to do and do not take notice of the world.”
He expands his theme by suggesting that the word “anochi – I – (God in this instance)” is a hint to the person who asks, “How will I withstand the evil inclination and its tricks? The answer is that “I, God will be with you and help you,” as it is written in the Talmud, (Kiddushin 30) “Each day the evil inclination would overcome a person, were it not that the Holy one Blessed be He helps him [withstand it].”
The Vilna Gaon continues: “noten – am setting before you” – it does not say, “did set before you”, so one will not think that if once he chose a bad path, he has no way to correct it. It says “noten” in the present, so he always has the option to choose a good path, as it says, “And until the day of his death He will wait for him to return, and if he returns, He will receive him immediately.”
He then addresses the word “lifnechem – before you,”: And if one would say: How could I know which is the good path and which is the bad path, because everything is obscure and hidden – so it is written “before you” – consider and examine, listen and see with a critical eye, the history of the people [what has transpired before you – in the past] and everything will become clear.
And regarding the word, “hayom – today”, the Gaon of Vilna concludes: And should a person say, “What remedy have I – if I am tainted by sin, what can I do with all the misdeeds I have done until now, so the scripture comes to say, “today” – each day will be in your eyes as new and you can start from there, and a penitent is like a newborn baby.”

The Sefat Emet also comments on the use of the present tense, “I set before you today…” saying that these two paths actually stand before a person at all times. He says that the righteous (whom Rabbi Arthur Green* interprets here as morally courageous – meeting each situation, making a decision and progressing to the next challenge) earn their blessing by always leaving the wicked path and choosing the good. The Sefat Emet quotes the Sifre telling a parable of an elder who stands at the crossroads warning those who pass, that the paths may appear deceptive, and the thorny path may end up straight and the straight path, thorny.

The Chatam Sofer also addresses the transition from the singular “see” to the plural, “before you”, saying that Chazal in Kiddushin 40 hint at communal responsibility: how one person, by his actions can redeem himself and the world around him , bringing blessing; or the opposite, condemn himself and those around him, bringing curse. He says, “The Torah is saying, See, by your thoughts, your vision, it is as though you are saying in your heart, – I am placing before you – before all the world, by my deeds – blessing or curse…”

The Sforno teaches on this verse, “Blessing and curse are two extremes. See that your deeds are not between them, that you do not compromise your behaviour, for there is only blessing and curse, no middle way.”

And in a blogpost in 2009, Dr Rachel Anisfeld notes that the Parasha begins with a frequent theme in the book of Devarim – the choice between good and bad, between life and death, or, as the parasha opens, with the choice between a life of blessing and a life of curses. Dr Anisfeld says, “The question of leading a moral life, of choosing good over evil, is a popular one and a universal one. But what makes the Torah’s version of this question special is that it is framed as an issue of relationship, specifically as an issue of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The parsha does not begin with the words: “These are the blessings and these are the curses.” It begins with a statement of relationship: “See this day I give you blessing and curse.” What makes this blessing and curse important is that I give it to you. And how does one earn this blessing or this curse? Again, through the relationship, either by being faithful to the relationship and obeying God’s commands, or by reneging on one’s relational duties and disobeying Him.” She cites a later prohibition in the parasha (against self-mutilation or shaving the front of the head) which is prefaced by, “…banim atem lashem elokeichem, – you are children of the Lord your God.” (Devarim 14:1). She notes, “the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, are framed as questions of our relationship to God.”
Dr Anisfeld points out that the relationship between God and Man is a theme recurring frequently in the Midrash, and she cites the midrash in Devarim Rabbah on Parashat Re’eh which compares both the Torah and the human soul to a ner – a light or a candle. In this midrash, when the Holy One blessed be He charges the people to observe the Torah, He says to them, “Neri beyadecha venercha beyadi – Your light is in My hands, and My light is in your hands. If you keep My light [the Torah], then I will keep your light [the human soul].”
Dr Anisfeld writes, “How deeply intimate and inextricable is such a relationship! Each of us holds a piece of God in our hands and God holds a piece of each of us in His… We carry a piece of Him, through the Torah, and He carries a piece of us, through our souls.
“Nor is it just any piece. It is the light…” Dr Anisfeld concludes that the true blessing being set before us is the choice to carry that light which is both God’s and our own.

*In The Language of Truth the Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet


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