By Rabbi Shawn Zevit
Re’eh – “See this day, I set before you both blessing and curse … for you are about to cross the Yarden/Jordan.”
The Torah narrative, and Moshe’s 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 River was before us then, as it is now, though infinitely thinner given the water siphoning upstream and general pollution and overuse.
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 Hebrew singular re’eh with the Hebrew word lifneikhem (before you, plural) that follows in the same sentence. He suggests that Moshe is talking to each Israelite individually at the same time. Each person has their own vision, their own seeing, even as there is a collective experience happening.
What would it be to really “see what is before us” as we enter the month of Elul — a time of inner preparation to take the annual journey to the Days of Awe in our individual and communal souls? What is it to really see what our nation and our communities are struggling with, have the potential to achieve together and where alienation has fed hateful actions?
Part of clarity is to see not only the immediate impact of our actions, but also 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 our and others’ actions that affect the experience of being blessed or cursed in our day-to-day lives? What are the biases we are unconscious to and privileges we take for granted that contribute to the oppression of others and imprison us in lifestyles and choices that mute our spirits?
In the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to begin the work of return that the journey of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur invite us into and not wait for the High Holidays to wake us up or prove their worth.
The Arizal in Likutei Torah speaks to the idea of yeridah or descent to realize 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 half-way, 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 deeply with me as I reflect on the challenges we face in our world today — especially on the anniversary of white supremacist public expressions of hatred in Charlottesville — and the historic and current systemic racism in our country. Then there are the challenges we face: the environment; immigration and those seeking refuge from violence; health care; ecological upheaval; economic inequity; racism; sexism; homophobia; anti-Semitism; challenges to democratic and pluralistic rights in Israel and the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people; hunger and poverty; on and on.
Sometimes, the experience of God’s absence is more palpable than God’s presence in dark times, and we can feel more burned by the flame of experience that enlightened by it. This is especially true when our highest leadership advocates building walls instead of bridges, or preach prejudice over unity.
Yet on a daily basis I see our humanity revealed in its Godly potential again and again when I lift my eyes up and re’eh/see the random acts of kindness and conscious compassion and activism in our Jewish and larger community. I experience it in the collegiality at the Board of Rabbis, the strong bonds we have built as multireligious clergy and as communities in POWER, New Sanctuary Movement and other justice efforts.
Where once crossings and descents in life seemed frightening, we can recognize them as possibilities of also discovering incredible blessings, partnerships and paths out of despair in the desertification of our spirits. Re’eh — see what is toxic for what it is and take action. Re’eh — see what is a blessing and nurture it.
I pray that as we count and treasure our days toward the Jewish New Year we are able to see ourselves and others more clearly and compassionately and cross over whatever rivers of longing, expectation, disappointment and fear that keeps us from reaching our places of promise of compassion, love, peace and justice in all forms.
That is “the Jordan” I am committed to crossing this year. Will we cross to this place of promise in 5779 together?
Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi for Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and a widely known consultant, teacher, author, spiritual director, musician and community organizer. He is the co-chair of the clergy caucus of POWER, co-director of the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute and a founder of the musical group Shabbat Unplugged. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.