Re’e – Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
This Shabbat we say Birchat Hahodesh announcing the new month of Elul, which begins Aug. 10. In fact, we always read parashat Re’e on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hodesh Elul (or, in some years, on Rosh Hodesh itself).
On the first of Elul, we begin to focus our attention on the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We begin to wish each other shana tova, we add Psalm 27 to Shaharit and Ma’ariv, and, most characteristic of the season, we blow the shofar at weekday morning services.
So what’s the connection between Re’e and the Yamim Nora’im? Re’e begins by telling us that we have the power to choose our actions, whether or not to obey God’s commandments, and we are therefore responsible for the consequences of our choices, perhaps the most important lesson of the High Holy Days.
You can see it in the very first verse: Re’e, Anochi notein lifneihem hayom bracha u-k’lala (See, this day I set before you blessing and curse).
Here, it helps to know Hebrew: lifneihem, before you, is plural, but re’e, see, is singular. Moses is saying, “I am telling all of you that each individual must choose between blessing and curse, you must decide whether you will observe the mitzvot when you enter the land.”
I hear in Moses’ repeated exhortations to obey the commandments when the Israelites enter the land a warning that it won’t be easy. There will be new temptations and dangers to lead the people away from following God.
The danger is that for the first time the people will be leading normal lives. In the wilderness, God’s presence was inescapable — there was the manna, the pillar of cloud and fire, the well, and more. But in the land of Israel the Jews would live like all other people, with houses, farms, and shops and all the pressures of daily life. It’s impossible to ignore God when you’re living on manna. When you buy your bread at the grocery store, it becomes easy to forget that God is the ultimate source.
So it’s interesting that in the first listing of commandments in the book of Sh’mot, the Torah begins with criminal and civil law — murder, theft, and personal injury. But here, on the verge of entering the land, the Torah begins with clearly religious laws — worship, tithes, kashrut, and festivals. We’re being warned that these are the easiest to let slide. The rabbis tell us that even if there were no Torah, we would still know through the exercise of reason that murder, adultery, and robbery are wrong. We need the Torah to tell us about those things that cannot be derived by reason — the laws and practices that apply specifically to the Jewish people.
Jewish history shows that there is not only danger in persecution, there is also danger in normalcy. Moses is warning about the temptation of normalcy — that as we become involved in the many aspects of daily living, we will be tempted to let go of those things that distinguish us as Jews. After all, they require effort, they cost money, and they can make us uncomfortable because they make us different from our neighbors.
This is the choice that each of us is offered today — the choice to remain Jewish. In contemporary America, there is nothing easier than to be a “nothing” — no formal conversion is necessary, you simply stop making a special effort to be Jewish.
It’s an important lesson for this season of the year. People who attend services regularly, not to mention rabbis and cantors, sometimes have less than kind things to say about all the people who flock to shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and then are not seen again until the next year. It goes without saying that we’d like to see them more often. We’d like to see them more involved in Jewish life. However, we should never forget that these Jews are choosing to remain Jewish, to be another link in the chain that stretches all the way back to Sinai. And by doing so, they have chosen blessing — for themselves, for their families, and for klal Yisrael, the entire Jewish people.