In last week’s parsha Re’eh, Moses continues to prepare the Nation of Israel for the responsibilities that lie ahead in the land that was promised to our fathers. “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse."
”In what has come to be called “Deuteronomical Thinking,” he presents the idea that blessings and curses result from our adherence or divergence from Mizvot. Some criticize “Deuteronomical Thinking” as childish Santa Claus-like thinking: if I am good I get rewarded by God, if bad, I get punished by God. Torah and Moses teach something very different. They present the idea that blessings and curses are the consequence of individual and community behaviors – that we, individually and collectively have the power to bless and to curse.
Re’eh is a call to “see” and pay attention to our actions and to take responsibility for their consequences. Moses is particularly concerned about idolatry. I doubt any of the readers of this newsletter are bowing down to, or making sacrifices to “carved images”. However, this does not mean that we are not worshiping idols, and thereby, bringing curses upon ourselves and our
Certainly, it’s easy to see the consequences of society’s lusts for the false gods of “gold and silver.” More difficult is for us to “Re’eh” the idols in our lives. Idols can be defined as “anything which is put before God (Mizvot, Hesed, or goodness), ”We bow down to the idols of the ego: money, property, prestige, self-image, body image, comfort and convenience.
Every time we overcome these idols and practice Mizvot, Hesed, or goodness with our families, or in our communities, we bring blessings upon them. Every time we succumb to these idols, we bring curses upon ourselves, our families, and our communities. As we approach the High Holidays, I encourage you to perform a “Heshbon ha’nefesh” , an accounting of the soul.
Review the prior year, and “see” for yourself the actions you took which resulted in blessings and those you took or failed to take that resulted in curses. Find for yourself the idols to which your eyes are drawn – those that you prioritize above God, Mizvot, Hesed, or goodness.
As a daily reminder, our tradition has us recite a prayer when we wash our faces upon awakening: “Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. May it be Your will, God, my God and God of my fathers, that You accustom me to Your Torah and Your commandments and do not accustom me to sins or transgressions. Cause the positive inclination to rule over me and not the evil inclination. Strengthen me in Your commandments and grant my portion in Your Torah. Allow me to find favor, lovingkindness, and mercy in Your eyes and the eyes of all who see me and bestow upon me benevolent kindnesses. Blessed are You, God, who bestows benevolent kindnesses.”
Torah teaches us that individuals and communities have the power to bless. However, we must “Re’eh” with our eyes and our souls that which will be a blessing and that which will be a curse. This prayer helps us keep our eyes open. With the power of reflection and prayer, we can overcome the idols in our lives. Our holy calendar and rituals help us to transform the ordinary and overcome the idols and bring blessings into our lives, our families and our communities. It all begins with “Re’eh”, to open our eyes and “see” that we, individually and collectively, have the power to bless and to curse.
“Blessed are You, God, who opens my eyes and allows me to be a part of your benevolent kindnesses.”
From Rabbi Miriam Hamrell
This Torah portion has been close to my heart for many years. Thirty-three years ago, when I celebrated my adult Bat-Mitzvah, this was my portion.
My great joy was when my grandfather, Ze’ev, Z”L, revealed to me at the reception, that this portion was also his Bar-Mitzvah portion 60 years earlier, back in Hungary, amazing coincident, “b’shert.” I dedicate my teaching to him, Ze’ev ben Natan Ve’Miriam.
Right in the beginning of our portion we read that Moses is saying, “I entreated (VaEt’hanan) to Adonai at that time…” There are a few interpretations to the word VaEt’hanan. Some of my books describe that Moses was appealing, imploring, beseeching, begging, pleading and praying for God’s compassion and merciful attributes to let him enter the Land of Israel. God answers Moses with a defiant, “No!” If this was not clear enough for Moses, God adds, "It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter,” 3:26.
When we look at the root for the word VaEt’hanan, we find the letters Hanun. It expresses a strong form of prayer. We find the word Hanun and its derivatives throughout the High Holy Days prayer book. While I meditated on this powerful word it left me with the feeling of intense prayer. I was wondering, does God listen to my prayers only when they are intense? Does God listen to my prayers only when I beg, implore and plead? Do I need to “put God into the corner” and beseech Him for my prayers to be heard? When I am praying to God from a meditative, quiet and serene space, God does not hear me?
Why does Moses need to VaEt’hanan to God? God knows Moses very intimately, after all Moses is described as the most humble and loyal Servant of God. Does Moses think if he would plead with God, God would hear him better and say, “Yes?” After all what does Moses only want to do? He wants to conclude the journey he began in Egypt, by letting him enter the Land of Israel with the People of Israel. If Moses VaEt’hanah to God, what do we need to do to encounter God’s merciful attribute?
May our heartfelt prayers find a “Yes” answer with God. Amen
From Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan . . . ”Devarim 1:1
Rabbanu Yonah teaches “Keep your sins before you always.” It is important to remember the mistakes of your past. This is relatively easy. What is more difficult is remembering the mistakes of a common past, perhaps mistakes, and possibly adventures we did not even experience personally.
In the first chapter of Devarim, it would seem that Moses is sharing this lesson as he relates to the assembled Jewish nation the “sins” of the past. But the lesson he teaches and the challenge he faces is so much greater than that.
Devarim is a different book from the prior four books of Torah. The first four books describe events as they unfold and the characters in those books experience the events as they occur.
Devarim, however, recounts events to an audience with no personal memory (except Joshua and Caleb) of slavery, redemption or even the revelation at Sinai.
Moses’ goal on this day, the day he recounts this story to the Children of Israel, is the same goal and challenge we face today:
• How to make someone else’s story, your story
• How to make an ancient story as meaningful to you today as if it occurred today.
Judaism’s interest in creating a vibrant future is rooted in our reverence of the past – good and bad. This is evident in our liturgy and our rituals. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in our holiday customs, particularly Passover, where it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we had gone out of Egypt. Tisha b’av is coming soon. This holiday of dark reflection asks us to face the destruction of the past and see our part in the destruction of our common future. Without looking honestly at the “sins” of our past and the damage they cause, we are less able to see the future impact of our current behavior.
It is no secret that I love stories. The ones I love the most are the stories of how we came to be here in America. For some of you, the story is yours. For others, it is a parent or grandparent’s story.
As we begin this first reading in the final book of Torah – this summary of hardships faced, obstacles overcome, mistakes made and lessons learned, I ask you to re-hear the story of how you came to be here today. Share the story with your children and grandchildren and make sure to include a summary of hardships faced, obstacles overcome, mistakes made and lessons learned.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.