Re'eh - "See this day, I set before you blessing and curse … for you are about to cross the Yarden."
The Torah narrative, and Moses' discourse with our ancestors, shifts from a recap of the past to an acknowledgement of the immensity of the moment in the life of the Jewish people. The place of descent, or yeridah, that is the Jordan was before us then, as it is now. This journey is a descent for the sake of a crossing that must be engaged in consciously if we are to live into our promise as human beings - and as a people.
Ibn Ezra, a medieval Jewish commentator, tries to reconcile the singular re'eh with the word lifneichem ("before you," in the plural) that follows in the same sentence. He suggests that Moses is talking to each Israelite individually at the same time. Each person has his or her own vision, a way of "seeing," even as there is a collective experience happening at the same time.
What would it be to really see what is before us as we enter this month of Elul, of inner preparation to take the annual journey to the Holy of Holies in our individual and communal soul?
Part of clarity is to see not only the immediate impact of our actions, but also the long-term implications. What is the horizon-line for an attitude, a choice of words, a well-intentioned or angry action we may undertake? What are the meanings we ascribe to ours and others' actions that affect the experience of being blessed or cursed in our day-to-day lives?
Do we ascribe a certain set of motives to the actions of other individuals or peoples than we do to ourselves, or do we offer the benefit of doubt until we gain a broader and deeper perspective of a situation?
Do we believe that we possess an ability to see what others cannot?
And conversely, are we seeing destructive patterns that our family, friends or neighbors are living out, and remaining aloof from compassionately sharing our concerns?
The Work of Return
I'm always struck by the emphasis of the golden rule in Leviticus, Chapter 19, where we are instructed to love others as we do ourselves. Yet the same sentence directs us to sensitively point out abusive patterns to those we live in community with as a part of loving ourself and others.
So now, in this month of Elul, we have the opportunity to begin the work of return that the journeys of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur invite us into.
The Arizal in Likutei Torah speaks to the idea of descent in realizing our potential in this parshah when he states, "A blessing is placed before you, often in the disguise of a challenge. Through your own work, the latent light is brought out and the depth of good is revealed, hidden in the challenge. We meet God halfway, becoming a partner in creation, and feel we own and have earned the good we have brought out on the other side."
These words resonate when I reflect on the challenges we face in our world today - the unfolding situation in Iraq, in the Middle East, and here in our own community. So often, I have observed struggles that leave us blinded to seeing the inherent possibilities for growth and positive change through a situation, and we become consumed by the challenge.
I pray that this month is one where we are able to see ourselves and others more clearly and compassionately, and cross over whatever rivers of longing, expectation, disappointment and fear that keep us from reaching our places of promise. That will prepare us for next month, when the hard work continues.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit is director of outreach and external affiliations and a senior consultant for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.