Drash on Parashat Re'eh (Rosh Chodesh Elul)
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins OAM
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
There is a kingdom, there is a king
This year, Shabbat Re’eh coincides with Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. While in previous parshiyot Moshe has focused on our ability to hear, in this one he focuses on our ability to see, as emphasised in its opening verse, “Re’eh, see, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Dt. 11:26). Rosh Chodesh also depends on our sight. The tradition of the sages, as in Tractate Rosh HaShanah of the Talmud, requires that the new moon be declared upon the testimony of two eye witnesses. Thus, our ability to see connects the celebration of Rosh Chodesh with Parasha Re’eh. Yet far more than seeing the New Moon and other natural occurrences – as beautiful and awe inspiring as they may be – our parasha and this new moon of Elul insist on a different kind of seeing beyond the physiological. Now is the time to work on our mindful perception. This season is particularly apposite for reflecting on how we perceive, for in one more month, one more moon, we will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year 5783. How will we see, how will understand, the blessing and the curse?
This new moon of Elul begins our ritual preparations for the New Year and helps us respond to this question. In every evening and morning service we will read Psalm 27, which exhorts us again to find that source of inner strength as it begins, “God is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?” Over these weeks leading to Rosh HaShanah, our teachings from the book of Devarim and the corresponding prophecies of Isaiah will remind us of the overwhelming power of the life force that is both beyond and within. In every daily morning service, we will begin sounding the shofar to herald the coming of “God the king” and also to awaken our deepest sovereign soul. This is the month we focus our perception on the awesomeness of the multiverse and envision the essential spark within each of us.
We do so with the image of God as King embedded in our literature. Every blessing we recite references God as “melekh haolam”, king of the universe. Avinu Malkeinu, “our father, our king,” is one of the potent pieces of liturgy between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Similarly, the extraordinary piyyut “U’nataneh Tokef”, which bookends those two days, describes God’s awesome sovereign power. Despite its language that can ring patriarchal and gendered, one can transcend the image of masculine patriarchy, one can shift one’s perceptions, to embrace this infinite and singular presence. When using the terms “king” and “kingdom”, the ancient sages are invoking the awesome power beyond us and the sovereign spark within. So too can we.
One of Australia’s greatest singers/songwriters, Nick Cave AO, sings in “There is a Kingdom”: “There is a kingdom and there is a king; and he lives without and he lives within…the starry heavens above and the moral law within….there is a king and he is everything.” That “everything” is referenced by our great prophet Isaiah, author of the haftarah this Shabbat, who elsewhere teaches: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7). As Moses declares: “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” The ultimate reality we are beckoned to explore at this time is that both blessing and curse, good and evil, are part of existence. They exist within us. This Shabbat Re'eh, this Rosh Chodesh Elul, we are called to see that reality of life and exhorted to perceive the blessing beyond, to seek the blessing within. The choice is in our sovereign power.