Parshat Re’eh תשע”ט
This week’s portion, “ראה” starts with a bang. Moshe tells the Jewish people in the name of HaShem (Deuteronomy 11:26):
“רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה”
“Look! I am placing before you today blessing and curse!”
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (1480-1550) applies a novel approach to this verse:
“ראה“: הביטה וראה שלא יהיה ענינך על אופן בינוני כמו שהוא המנהג ברוב. כי אמנם אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה והם שני הקצוות, כי הברכה היא הצלחה יותר מן המספיק ע”צ היותר טוב. והקללה היא מארה מחסרת שלא יושג המספיק, ושניהם לפניכם להשיג כפי מה שתבחרו”
“Look carefully to see that your matters aren’t mediocre like most people’s. I place before you blessing and curse, the two extremes. Blessing is when you succeed in achieving more than you need and do the most possible. A curse is when you fall short of the mark and are unable to achieve what you need to do. I place them both before you to achieve based on your choices.”
This Seforno reminds me of a feature article that National Geographic once did on Jon Krakauer, an ice-climber.
Ice climbers are the ones who make mountain climbers look like toddlers in diapers. Instead of climbing a mountain with rocks and footholds to climb on, they climb up vertical mountains of ice, like a ten-story frozen waterfall. The sport is dangerous, difficult and exhausting. Conditions are usually miserable, frigid, damp and stormy. Even the gear looks scary. Ice axes for each hand, and spiked crampons for the feet. A skillful climber, Krakauer describes what it feels like to hang by the straps of one’s ice axes a hundred feet above the ground his attachment to the world reduced to “a few thin points of steel sunk a half an inch into a giant Popsicle.”
He explained why he does it. “The view releases a surge of brain chemicals that blows the rust from my cerebral pipes. Pay attention! I tell myself aloud. This is serious! One false move and you are history! This explains why paradoxically I feel more alive than I have in a month. ‘Ice climbing restores the primal hues that have been bleached from the canvas of civilized existence,’ he writes. ‘It lends one’s actions an immediacy, a delicious gravity, a seriousness that is sorely lacking from workaday life. What you do on the side of a waterfall matters!’ ”
On the side of a vertical mountain of ice, it’s either all or nothing. If you don’t give it your all, you are history. This is why Jon Krakauer is prepared to endanger his life, to feel the importance of doing something perfectly instead just getting away with mediocrity like most people.
The Seforno is teaching us that blessing is when you put yourself out to achieve the maximum you can in life. Don’t be like most people who are content with a mediocre standard for themselves and do just the minimum they need to get by in life. That is a curse like falling off the mountain. Choose to be a blessing, and do the best you can in everything.
There is a deeper level to this. To what should a person apply his efforts to achieve excellence? Climbing a hundred-foot popsicle? The Torah reveals the answer to this in the next two verses.
“אֶת הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְוֹת ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם”
“The blessing is when you will listen to HaShem’s commandments”
“וְהַקְּלָלָה אִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְוֹת ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם”
“And the curse will come if you don’t listen to HaShem’s commandments”
The Torah is teaching us that for a Jew, life is full of blessing, our Sages emphasizing that in Judaism, there are no optional choices. Either there is a Mitzvah to do it and a sin not to, or there is a sin if you do it, and a Mitzvah not to do it.
“כי אין דבר בעולם שלא יהיה מצוה או עבירה, ואין לך דבר רשות בעולם, כמו שכתוב בחובת הלבבות (שער עבודת האלקים פ”ד)
“There is nothing in the world that isn’t either a Mitzvah or a sin. As the Chovot HaLevavot explains, there is no such thing as an optional matter.”
Even “natural” things like eating and sleeping can be transformed into a Mitzvah when they are done for the sake of a Mitzvah, such as eating and sleeping to have strength to serve HaShem or to study His Torah. Considering this, we easily see how life is full of blessing. Every Mitzvah is a blessing, and the loss of a Mitzvah, or a sin, is a curse.
Because this bonanza of blessing is applicable only to the Jewish people, Judaism raises the stakes of existence in this world. The ice climber intentionally raises his stakes artificially to get more out of life, not only from the dangerous height of the frozen waterfall, but also when a fall means certain death. The very ability to peer downwards and see the danger makes the heights that much more exhilarating. It’s a feeling anyone who’s been on the top of a tall building with a plaza and a railing can attest to. It might be a pretty view, but without having climbed it, and without perceiving the danger of falling, there is no rush of exhilaration.
But a Jew needs only to pursue every Mitzvah opportunity to receive blessing upon blessing from HaShem. Not only will this bring him the greatest blessing and satisfaction, he will also be a source of blessing to the entire world. How is that?
Many of the Torah’s commentaries point out an inconsistency in our Parashah’s first verse, which begins with the word “רְאֵה” , “See” -in the singular, and then shifts into the plural form “לִפְנֵיכֶם” —”In front of you”. Why the switch in the middle of the sentence?
They answer that this is an allusion to the Talmud Tractate Kidushin 40b, which says:
“ר’ אלעזר בר’ שמעון אומר, לפי שהעולם נידון אחר רובו והיחיד נידון אחר רובו עשה מצוה אחת אשריו שהכריע את עצמו ואת כל העולם לכף זכות עבר עבירה אחת אוי לו שהכריע את עצמו ואת כל העולם לכף חובה”
“Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Shimon said: The world is judged by the majority (righteous and evil people) and so is the individual. If he did one Mitzvah, how fortunate he is to have tilted himself and the whole world to the side of merit, and if he did one sin, woe unto him for having tilted himself and the world to the side of evil.”
Rashi explains that a person should look at the world as if there is an equal number of righteous and evil people, and at himself as having as many Mitzvot as he has sins. Doing just one more Mitzvah makes him a righteous person, tipping the world’s scale in favor of the righteous and saving the world! The verse accordingly begins in the singular to indicate to each individual that the whole world (“לִפְנֵיכֶם”, “In front of you”—plural) could be dependent on his one act.
There is another hint to this idea. The Jewish people were to receive the blessings and curses mentioned in the first verse of our Parshah when they entered the land of Israel. Six tribes would ascend the top of Mount Eval and the other six would ascend the top of Mount Gerizim. The Kohanim and the Levi’im with the Holy Ark were to stand in the valley between the two mountains and turn their faces to Mount Gerizim and say the blessing to the six tribes on that mountain. Then they would turn their faces to the six tribes on Mount Eval and say the curse to them. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explains that this configuration was intended to evoke an image of a scale, the righteous half of the Jewish nation on one side and the evil half on the other. Seeing this causes one to realize just how delicate the balance is, and that even one of his Mitzvot can affect the entire Jewish nation by tipping the scale in favor of the good or bad.
The message of the scale is very appropriate for this time of year. The portion of Re’eh always comes near the beginning of the month of Elul. This coming Shabbat, when we read the portion of “ראה” , Re’eh, it will be ראש חדש אלול , the First Day of the Month of Elul, the month in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The representative constellation for the month of Tishrei, the month in which Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur fall, is the scale. It is the month of judgment. It is therefore appropriate to think about the scale—implying judgment—during the month of Elul before the upcoming High Holidays.
Why are most people satisfied with mediocrity? What prevents them from striving for and achieving excellence? Our Sages teach us that, for the most part, it is simple laziness.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato says it very clearly in his work The Path of the Just, Chapter 6.
ותראה כי טבע האדם כבד מאד, כי עפריות החמריות גס, על כן לא יחפוץ האדם בטורח ומלאכה
You will see that man’s nature of is to feel very heavy because the earthiness of his material makeup is coarse. Therefore, man disdains toil and work.
This is also why man is so reluctant to accept responsibility upon himself and will do anything to escape it. Responsibility means obligation to others and creates limitations on free time. What is the secret to escaping mediocrity’s curse and achieving blessing?
The Midrash provides a clue:
“ברכה וקללה” למה נאמר? לפי שנאמר החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה. שמא יאמרו ישראל הואיל ונתן המקום לפנינו שני דרכים דרך החיים ודרך המות נלך באיזו מהן שנרצה, תלמוד לומר “ובחרת בחיים,” משל לאדם שהיה יושב על פרשת הדרכים והיו לפניו שני שבילין, אחד שתחלתו מישור וסופו קוצים ואחד שתחלתו קוצים וסופו מישור, והיה מודיע את העוברים ואת השבים ואמר להם שאתם רואים שביל זה שתחלתו מישור כשתים ושלש פסיעות מהלך במישור וסופו לצאת לקוצים ואתם רואים את שביל זה שתחלתו קוצים כשתים ושלש פסיעות אתה מהלך בקוצים וסופו לצאת למישור
ילקוט שמעוני, דברים יא; רמז תתעה
“This could be compared to a man sitting at a fork in the road with two paths: One is clear in the beginning but after a short while contained thorns and thistles and was very difficult to pass, and one with thorns and thistles in the beginning but, after a short while, opened up to a clear path. He would tell the travelers, “You see this road with a clear path? After just two or three steps it will be filled with thorns and thistles. And you see this path with the thorns and thistles? After just two or three steps it will open up to a clear road.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Devarim 11; 475)
Why were both the blessing and curse mentioned? Because it says in Deuteronomy 30:19:
“הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ”
“I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse; Choose life! So that you and your children will continue to live, maybe the Jewish people will say, “Since HaShem has placed two paths in front of us, the path of life and the path of death, we can choose either one, therefore HaShem instructed us to “choose life!”
The pursuit of excellence and Berachah initially takes a lot of effort to overcome the natural feeling of laziness and heaviness, the thorns and thistles, which, unfortunately, is the human condition’s default position. But, after a short while, after putting forth some effort, it becomes second nature, and the path to excellence becomes easy. As it says in The Path of the Just, Chapter 9.
“וכשירגיל עצמו על זה הדרך, ימצא העבודה קלה עליו ודאי”
“When he accustomed himself to it, he will find the work much easier for him.”
It’s like the expression, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” The logic is that he is already in motion and requires only a small detour to fulfill your request. Whereas a lazy person, until he gets up, it’s a whole ordeal and takes much effort on his part.
On the other hand, the easy road, just doing nothing, is easy in the beginning, but in the end, when a person reaches the end of his life, he has only thorns and thistles to show for it because he didn’t put himself out to accomplish anything.
As we begin the month of Elul, let’s focus on bringing as much blessing into our lives as possible. This will enrich our lives and help us prepare for the upcoming High Holidays.
Sure, it takes some effort and focus, but the rewards will be immeasurable.