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Drash on Parashat Re'eh 2021

Drash on Parashat Re'eh
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation, Hong Kong

In this week’s parashah, Re’eh, Moses’ address to the Israelites before crossing the Jordan continues by covering a range of topics including blessing and curse, the prohibition of worshipping other gods, kosher food, false prophets, and establishment of the three Pilgrimage Festivals.

Interestingly, reading it brought to mind an often quoted Chinese proverb: I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

Re’eh is the longest Torah portion in Deuteronomy but so very much is packed into just the first words: 
See, I set before you blessing and curse . . . (Deut. 11:26).

The command to “see” is curious, as usually God appeals to the Israelites to “listen,” nowhere more famously than in the Shema. But here instead we are exhorted to “see.”

The Talmud teaches: “Who is wise? He who sees the future.” (Tamid 32a). The Talmud does not describe as wise one who knows the future (after all, who can?), but one who is able to see – to imagine, to vividly envision, the outcome of an action.

It is easy for the mind to drift while listening. We have all had that experience at a lecture or talk. But to see is to focus, to apprehend, and to understand. Even in our day to day conversation, we say “I see” when we mean “I really get it.”

Further, the verse begins with the word “see” in the singular, directed to the individual, but continues “before you . . .” in the plural. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught that the commandments concerning the blessings and curses were given to the whole of the Jewish people. However, the “seeing is in the singular because each person sees in the Torah something special.” Each of us experiences the Torah in a unique way.

Finally, the verse can be read as, “I am setting before you blessing and curse,” rather than “I set.” Choosing between blessing and curse is not a one-time event. Rather it is a choice we make day in and day out, sometimes minute-by-minute.

While the parashah continues by spelling out numerous laws and obligations, the central theme is choice. Each of us must fully understand that we ourselves are continually responsible for making the decisions that guide our lives. It is our individual responsibility to choose blessing for ourselves and our communities.

If we really see this, we will understand that it can be a daunting responsibility. But each of us has been given the tremendous power of free choice. As Maimonides teaches:

If God decreed that an individual would be righteous or wicked, or if there was some force inherent in his nature which irresistibly drew him to a particular course . . . as imagined by many of the fools who believe in astrology – how could He command us through the words of the prophets: “Do this,” “Do not do this,” “Improve your behavior,” or “Do not follow after your wickedness? When, from the beginning of man’s creation, it would be decreed upon him . . . what place would there be for the entire Torah? (Mishneh Torah 5:4).

These past 19 months of pandemic have driven home exactly how much our individual choices matter. I am stunned when I read news reports about the COVID-19 situation in the US, my home country. Incredible numbers of people actively oppose vaccination, masking, and other actions that would help counter the spread of the virus and protect the vulnerable. I am appalled when I hear from family and acquaintances who make light of the situation, like the relative who admitted that he has not been vaccinated because “he doesn’t like needles.” Such selfish choices will lead to suffering and death.

Here in Hong Kong, we are watching as the Delta variant burns through nearby countries. While vaccination rates have picked up recently here, too many people have chosen to “wait and see” for too long. We do not yet know how the choice of so many individuals to delay “the jab” will play out for the people of Hong Kong.

Finally, it is painful to hear the about the frustration, anxiety, mental health issues, economic distress, and isolation that friends in Australia are experiencing once again as they endure lockdowns and severe restrictions. But those abiding by the harsh restrictions are making a day-by-day choice that will help stem the virus and in the end benefit their communities.

No single individual can ease the suffering COVID -19 has brought. But every individual must see – really understand -- that it is incumbent upon each of us to make the daily choices that will help our communities eventually emerge from the pandemic. Get vaccinated to protect yourself and others. Wear a mask. Reach out to those who are alone. Be kind. Over and over again choose blessing.

In Re’eh, God commands the Israelites to choose blessing by observing mitzvot. The Hebrew word mitzvah is sometimes related to the Aramaic tsavata – or togetherness. Mitzvot undertaken as a community bring us together, and by acting together to alleviate suffering we sanctify God’s presence in the world. May we have the wisdom to see that in every choice lies the power to bring healing to our communities and holiness to the world.

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