02 Sep 2016

Re’eh 5776: The Holy See

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‘Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre’. —Albert Camus 
‘We are kept from our goal not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal’. — Robert Brault

The striking opening of perashat Re’eh puts forth a vision for the Children of Israel that leaves little leeway. As R. Ovadia Sephorno (d. 1550) puts it, Moshe leaves the Children of Israel with no middle ground — it is either the heights or the depths for the nation:

See! I place before you today blessing and curse…. (11:26)

[That is to say] ‘Look and see! That your issues will not revolve around the mediocre…rather I place before you blessing and curse; two extremes. Blessing is greater than average success and curse is less than what is necessary, and both are set before you to achieve should you choose[1].

Blessing or curse; life or death; good or evil[2]. Could Moshe not have given the option of living an average, moral life as acceptable for the masses? It doesn’t seem so.

Moshe does not allow the option of mediocrity as an acceptable goal. This nation was to put all of their efforts into travelling a path towards their greatest potential futures. Action, passion, struggle, resilience, bravery, perseverance, faithfulness, fortitude, focus, strength, study and toil are but some of the attributes necessary to live a productive life of growth and the nation of Israel was meant to espouse them as standards.

As the people prepared to step into a life of freedom they had to know that no one else could live their lives for them and that while they might seek advice the journey would need to be travelled by them alone. Thus they would need to have clear vision as to where they were heading.

Moshe confirmed for them that to aim for anything less than their best would miss the point of life. There are many obstacles in this pursuit and guidance from those more familiar with the path is a valuable and helpful aid along the way. The role of the prophet, sage or advisor is to provide the vision for the journey’s potential and end. Ramban rightfully identifies that what is being placed before them is a path towards blessing and a path towards curse[3].

Our sages teach that wisdom is achieved when we reach the ability to see future outcomes of current situations.

Who is wise? One who sees what the future will bring… (Pirke Abot, 4:1)

Vision is a crucial element for travel. We use it to ascertain our surroundings, gauge distance, and judge the terrain of the road. Yet, Moshe is speaking here not of a physical journey but a spiritual one. The path is life itself and before us lie two options: success or failure.

Just as we use vision concretely with our eyes, we do so abstractly with our minds. With wisdom, creativity and experience we hone our mental capacity to see possibilities beyond the present and move viably towards the future.

One important aspect of our capacity for mental vision is that it helps us move beyond the confines of the present. If we cast our vision high and far and clearly see into the distance we recognise the length of our voyage and we understand that it will take time, effort, perseverance and focus in order to make it. The limits of our vision are the limits of our ability to travel. The less we see possibilities and impediments the less clear and successful our journey and we risk stopping at a premature and inferior point along the road, possibly mistaking it for the journey’s end.

From the start we have collectively set our eyes upon our greatest future. We have encountered every challenge and obstacle but our success has come because despite the challenges we have refused to turn our sights away from our highest potential to an easier and more accessible goal.

We have begun to see the rebirth of our national identity and we are witnessing elements of our people flourishing that have long been dormant within us. We have done so as a nation despite great struggles.  As individuals we are at our best when we strive to do the same with our own lives. When we seek to discover our prime expression and see it clearly, we can travel towards the blessing that lies before us with resolve, conviction and the grace of G-d.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Sephorno, ibid.

[2] Deut., 30:15: ‘See! I set before you today life and good, and death and ill….’

[3] 11:29

Parsha Perspectives

IV  Re’eh 

12e              Blessing or curse, it is your choice  (11:26-28)
12f               Laws in the Land: Destroy idols, serve in
Temple, offerings  (11:29-12:19)
12g              Slaughtering animals for food, warning
against blood  (12:20-28)
12h              Don’t follow the local nations into idol worship
13a              A false prophet  (13:2-6)
13b              Idol worshipping enticers in one’s own
family  (13:7-12)
13c               A city converted to idolatry  (13:13-19)
13d              Against heathen rites  (14:1-2)
13e              Animals that can be eaten  (14:3-8)
13f               Fish that can be eaten  (14:9-10)
13g              Birds that can be eaten. More food laws (14:11-21)
14a              Yearly tithe eaten at the Mikdash  (14:22-27)
14b              Poor tithe every third year  (14:28-29)
14c               Introduction to Shmitta laws of debts  (15:1-6)
14d              Don’t not lend just because the Shmitta year is
approaching  (15:7-11)
14e              The release of slaves  (15:12-18)
15                Firstborn cattle laws  (15:19-23)
16a              Pesach: Origins and laws  (16:1-8)
16b              Shavuot: Origins and laws  (16:9-12)
17a              Sukkot: Origins and laws. Summary  (16:13-17)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS