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August 21, 2014 By:
Learning to See What Matters Most
The first word is arresting. “Re’eh: See!”
We spend our lives “looking.” But what do we “see”?
Like many of our parshiot, the opening word serves as the name of this portion. The verb is expressed as a command: “See!” God is speaking to Moses in this eleventh chapter of Deuteronomy, the second telling of the laws for the Israelite people. God wants Moses to pay attention. “See! This day I set before you blessing and curse.”
Every morning, observant Jews repeat a series of blessings to thank the Holy One for a range of abilities to do sacred work in the world. One of those blessings thanks God “for granting sight to the blind.” What is blindness? An inability to see. Too often, that inability is not organic, but, rather, our sight is obscured because we’re not paying attention.
The words of our prayer remind us that facing each new day demands intentional, not accidental “waking.” Each day, we are invited to open our eyes as if we have been blind. God opens the eyes of even those of us who have been blind to the world around us.
“See! This day I set before you blessing and curse.” Are blessings actually seen? Are curses visually manifest? The litany of our morning blessings can be read as visual blessings. We begin by thanking the Holy One “for creating us in God’s image, for clothing the naked, for freeing the captive, for raising up those who are bent down, and for providing for our needs.”
As we continue to read through the daily blessings, we might imagine the absence of these blessings as visual curses: If God did not “raise us when we are bowed down,” we would find it difficult, if not impossible, to physically navigate the world.
If God did not “provide for my every need,” we would experience the curse of hunger, homelessness, exposure to the elements. If God did not “make firm our steps,” if God did not “give strength to the weary,” if God did not enable us to wake and “remove sleep from our eyes,” we would not be able to function, groping in the dark, stumbling into chaos.
We “see” these curses as physical and psychological stumbling blocks to being fully in the world. So cursed, we can’t care for ourselves or others, we become isolated, alienated and disconnected.
“See! This day I set before you blessing and curse.” Like Moses, we are challenged to open our eyes to the blessings, the possibilities for real presence and engagement in our lives. Truly “seeing” our blessings may change the way we “see” what seem to be our curses, our burdens, the difficulties all of us face.
The Haftarah complementing this portion extends the message of awakening our senses. The prophet Isaiah channels God and says: “Open your ears and come to Me; hearken and you shall live.”
This Shabbat, we will welcome the new month of Elul, which begins on Wednesday, Aug. 27. Elul is the month in which we prepare our hearts for the new year; each day in this month, we focus on different aspects of our souls’ health and well-being.
Re’eh challenges us to open our eyes and our ears to the blessings, invites us to prepare for and to greet 5775. Hodesh tov—to a month of insight and deepening, a month of seeing blessings.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the editor of The Open Door Haggadah, serves as a spiritual director in Philadelphia. She is one of the creators of “Crying Out Against Mass Incarceration,” a Haggadah supplement developed by the Jewish Working Group to End the New Jim Crow.