There are many things in our world that we humans feel are not in our control. I often hear about the “market” deciding what to do, even though the stock market is an entity we created and we control. Major issues like poverty, hunger, climate change, war and peace as well as events — like the BP oil spill — seem to be so huge that they are out of our sphere of control.
“What can I do, what can we do?” is the phrase I hear often; it renders us helpless but also not responsible in a certain way. If there is nothing I can do about something, I feel bad about that but not motivated to make a difference. The Torah this week, in Parashat Re’eh, reminds us that this is most certainly not the case.
The opening line of the parashah is a clarion call to human beings that choice is precisely the trait we humans are gifted with from God. “See, this day, I set before you a blessing and a curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). While the next two verses tell us that the blessing and the curse are about whether we follow mitzvot and stay on God’s path, the first line is a deep teaching about the nature of choice and life.
Re’eh, see, is in the singular, which, according to the Vilna Gaon, an 18th century master, is so that a person won’t say, “What is the difference if I choose a good path if the majority of the world behaves in an evil way?” “See” is in the singular so we take care of our own selves. It is so easy to look around and point to myriad evils in the world — to the millions of human beings who don’t care about the environment, who are not concerned with the hungry in our midst, who think that peace is impossible — and not do anything in our own life because we think it doesn’t matter. It does matter, and it is the heart of being human: We get to choose how to respond in any given situation, and the Vilna Gaon is reminding us how valuable and truly divine that option is for us.
The second interesting Hebrew construct in this short verse is that notain lifnachem, set before you, is in the present tense, which means that this applies to us today as much as it did to our ancestors. God is continually and consistently placing a choice before us, in every generation, in every moment, and we get to decide how to respond. Sometimes we choose wisely, sometimes we don’t. But very, very little is so far out of our control that we can’t choose how we act. And, as we get ready for the High Holy Days, this parashah is reminding us that teshuvah, the process of renewing and repenting, is precisely about choice. If we make a bad decision, we can correct it, in most cases, and make amends or choose differently the next time. Lastly, the verse says, hayom, today, which is another sign that this teaching is an eternal one. Each day, each moment, each breath, is an opportunity for us to choose how we act; what we say; what we refrain from saying; what we give; what we withhold; whether to heal or harm, love or hate, embrace or push away. And since the verse starts with the word re’eh, see, we are taught that before we can make good decisions, our eyes need to be fully open, but not just our eyes. For seeing is much more than the physical act of sight; it is a spiritual awakening that needs to be cultivated and nurtured. Plenty of us “see” the great ills of the world but don’t adjust our actions to make a difference. Seeing, from the depths of our hearts, from the eye of God, with pathos, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called it, is what the Torah is calling us to work on this week. And from that depth of sight, we can then begin to “choose” differently how we act, hopefully embracing the great many blessings that exist for us to enact in our world. It is up to us, our choice: blessing or curse. What will it be?
Rabbi Neil Gillman, one of the great theologians of our time, writes, “We were trained to believe that God, at least, has it all together. This is not so, say our sources. In theory it may be true, but in practice it is not. The God that we experience is a God who needs humanity to achieve God’s own purposes. This is a God who is frustrated, who dreams dreams for humanity and the world, who is rebuffed but returns again and again, with infinite yearning, pleading for our help to achieve God’s purposes and our own as well. That may well be God’s most striking tribute to us.”
May we heed this call and make great choices in the coming year, for our own personal lives and for the greater human family.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.