Shabbat candles: 7:37 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 11:26-16:17; Numbers 28:9-15
Haftorah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Havdalah: 8:36 p.m.
The Torah portion of Re’eh marks the start of the third and primary speech of Devarim (Deuteronomy). In his first speech, Moses summarizes events that occurred to the generation that left Egypt. The final speech is his farewell and preparatory words for the people who will enter the Land of Israel. This midsection of the book, the longest of the three speeches, focuses on mitzvot (commandments). It presents some new ones and some that were already given, all with eyes toward inhabiting the land of Israel.
Numbered chapters were a 13th-century innovation by Bishop Langston; there are no chapter/verse designations in a Torah scroll, nor are the chapters synchronized with the Shabbat readings. Despite Moses’ speech appearing at the conclusion of a chapter [Deut. 11:26], the speech clearly starts a new section, and therefore appears at the beginning of Parshat Re’eh: “Behold, I put before you today a blessing and curse: the blessing is when you listen to the commandments of your God… the curse comes if you do not listen to the commandments of your God.” This is the introduction to the commandments that follow, and much later in Devarim this speech is bookended by the blessings and curses that are actually given. However, one has to wonder why it is necessary at the start to mention blessings and curses at all?
Rabbi Mordechai Sabato explains that by putting it up front the Torah makes it clear that blessings and curses are inextricably tied to life in the Land. These blessings are not just consequences, but living a blessed life is the sole reason for entering the Land, and reveals the Land’s uniqueness. This is made clear by King David when he states that God gave the Jewish People the Land of Israel “in order that they would observe His statutes and preserve his teachings [Psalms 105:44].”
There is a subtle distinction between the presentation of the blessing and the presentation of the curse. The Hebrew wording for the curse suggests that it follows as a consequence of not keeping the Torah. On the other hand, the wording of the blessing tells us that when we listen to God’s word, the blessed effects come immediately. This means that listening to God’s words is itself a blessing, rather than the blessings only being a consequence of behavior. The Torah wishes to make this clear before presenting a long list of commands that could seem burdensome.
When the Jews reached the heights of holiness at the splitting of the sea they declared, “This is my God and I will adorn Him.” The Rabbis of the Talmud explain this to mean that we are instructed to beautify ourselves before God through keeping His Torah. There are times when we truly feel that our traditional way of life is a beautiful and blessed one. And there are times when others look at the Jewish way of life and feel compelled to capture its grandeur in pictures and in words.
The point of the main part of Devarim is that God gave us the blueprint for leading a blessed and beautiful way of life. Moses states explicitly that God does not ask much from us, even if it sometimes feels like a lot. It would serve us well to remember that the commandments are a gorgeous gift from God. God does not need us to keep His commandments; rather, we need to keep them. We are like workers hired to count gold bricks, and then getting to keep every brick counted.
We complain because we forget that the commandments are in our own best interest. Complaining about the mitzvot is akin to protesting when a doctor tells us to exercise and eat right. The doctor doesn’t need our exercise; he wants to help us live a healthy life. Some Jews grumble, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said that we need to work on our perspective; it is wonderful to be a Jew!
In the forest there was once a creature, feeling small and insignificant, who complained to God, asking for something that would make it special. The next morning the creature awoke with weights on each side. The animal called out to God, not understanding why God made it more vulnerable than before. God replied, “I gave you wings, not weights.” We are meant to live a lofty life. We are described as an Am Segulah [Deut. 14:2], often translated as the “Chosen People,” but “segulah” is more accurately translated as “treasured.”
Before reviewing the commandments Moses makes clear that God puts before us a life of blessing. It is up to us to accept the offer and live the life that God wants us to have. May we be blessed to be the beautiful individuals, and the glorious nation, in the wondrous land God has given us.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is a teacher and guidance counselor in The Frisch School.