WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?
Rabbi David Walk
As we've been discussing in these articles the style of the book of Devarim evolves as we move through the work. A major transition takes place this week as we shift from the verb shma meaning 'listen' to re'eh or 'see.' Initially Moshe is emphasizing the more passive form of information gathering which is the sense of hearing. As we progress through Moshe's words of rebuke there is a shift to the more active decisions to be made by the Jews in the future and this requires looking out for spiritual dangers in one's path. The wise person has eyes in their head (Ecclesiastes 2:14). That's why our parsha is called Re'eh or see, but what are we to look for? So, this week's article is about the eye test which is life. However, the problem isn't just how well we see but to discover the nature of the eye chart itself.
Here's what Moshe actually said: "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: a blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day; and a curse, if you will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). The Slonimer Rebbe (Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, 1911 – 2000) pointed out that often eyes and sight in Jewish sources are considered potentially dangerous resources. For example, in the third paragraph of Shema we are told not to follow our eyes, and the Rebbe suggests that most lusts and sins are connected to looking at seductive items. But here we are being informed that the power of sight can be called on to buttress our efforts at sanctity, if we just focus on the proper vision. So, again we ask: What should I be looking at?
The Midrash helps to answer our query. The Midrash Raba at the beginning of our Torah reading relates the fable of an elder who sits at a fork in the road giving advice for those who pass by. That metaphor must be the subject of our scrutiny. Actually there is a modern translation of the Bible called the Message, which renders the first verse of our parsha like this: I've brought you today to the crossroads of Blessing and Curse. We must look at every encounter and every decision as a crossroads situation. We must look and study carefully how to choose the correct path.
The first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chidushei HaRim (1798-1866) describes this endeavor as a great gift from God. He explains that the most important word in this verse isn't 'see', but is 'today'. We have this obligation and opportunity to choose the proper path every single day. We know this because we believe that God renews in Divine goodness the act of Creation every day. This is critically important, because normally we assume that one who sins loses their free will, as it says, the wicked are in the power of their hearts (Midrash Esther Raba, 10:3). Therefore, the Rebbe points out the importance of the word 'today'. This means that God grants each one of us a new free will daily, allowing us to choose for ourselves the proper path again. We confront this crossroads every morning when we greet the new dawn. What a precious gift!
However, choosing isn't easy. In our Rabbinic literature there are two versions of this choosing the correct route story. The one in our Midrash describes the two routes as presented by the old man: one road begins with thorns and brambles but ends with a lovely straightaway, the other begins pleasantly enough but ends in a briar patch. The other version is in the Talmud when Rebbe Yehoshua confronts a crossroads and notices a young boy. The great Sage asks the youth about the nature of the two roads diverging before them, and he enigmatically responds: This road is short and long, and the other is long and short (Eruvin 53b). We know from Google maps that the shortest route isn't always the fastest route. And, indeed, Rebbe Yehoshua takes the short, long path and is tremendously disappointed by the length of time it required to arrive at his destination. He then praises the child who outsmarted him.
We need a lot of information to choose the correct route. We have to know the directness of the route, the condition of the roads, and, of course, the traffic report. Thank God for Waze! That little woman in the phone even lets you know where the police are. If we do this for the daily trips of our lives, both trivial and consequential, how much more so must we plan the voyage which is our life. But how do we access the spiritual Waze?
Let's look back at the verses. It's clear that the navigation system can be accessed by performing the mitzvot. The blessings or good results are the outcome of heeding the mitzvot. That much is clear, but how do we know that the outcome will be positive –
that we've chosen correctly? Unlike the trip to the vacation spot or the relative's new house, these results don't come in immediately; they require time and patience. But the grandson of the Chidushei haRim, the Sfat Emet (1836-1906) instructs us to be confident. He learns this from the language in the verses. Concerning the blessing it says 'when you heed', but the verse about the curses says 'if you don't obey'. The second Gerrer Rebbe explains that the good and the blessing are the default position, the bad and curses are an accident and abnormal. Therefore, we must have confidence in the system, if we only give the appropriate effort. My wife tells me to trust Waze; I'm telling you to trust the mitzva navigation system.
So, we must start every day with this positive, blessing oriented attitude in place. Just remember that the first impressions about which path is efficacious and best can be extremely misleading. Let's get started. Drive carefully.