God places both blessing and curse before the Israelites. They are taught that blessing will come through the observance of God’s laws. (11:26–32)
Moses’ third discourse includes laws about worship in a central place (12:1–28); injunctions against idolatry (12:29–13:19) and self-mutilation (14:1–2); dietary rules (14:3–21); and laws about tithes (14:22–25), debt remission (15:1–11), the release and treatment of Hebrew slaves (15:12–18), and firstlings (15:19–23).
Moses reviews the correct sacrifices to be offered during the Pilgrim Festivals—Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot.
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When Adonai your God brings you into the land that you are about to invade and occupy, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah near Gilgal by the terebinths of Moreh. (Deuteronomy 11:26–30)
- Why does the first sentence of this portion begin with the imperative form of the verb “see”?
- Although the alternatives between blessing and curse in Deuteronomy 11:27–28 are clear, do the people really have the freedom to choose between them without fearing that they are offending God?
- Is the power of positive thinking at work in verse 29, which says, “When [italics added] Adonai your God brings you into the land that you are about to invade and occupy” rather than “If God brings you…”?
- Is verse 30 merely an editor’s note that was added later, or is the mentioning of the “terebinths of Moreh,” where God appeared to Abram in Genesis 12:7, meant to have special significance for the people, who are about to enter Canaan?
By the Way...
The Rabbis of the Talmud note that the Hebrew grammar in this phrase [Deuteronomy 11:26] is surprising. It begins with the singular and ends with the plural! “What lesson,” they ask, “is buried in that awkward formation?” According to our Sages, we learn from the singular R’eih (“See”) that the mitzvot are given to the entire people—to all Jews as a group. The contours of our religion are not the personal preference of each individual Jew. Yet at the same time, the phrase ends with lifneichem (“before you [all]”), a plural construct, to remind us that each individual must decide whether or not to commit heart, mind, and soul to cultivating our b’rit (“covenant”) with God. (Bradley Shavit Artson, Parashat R’eih, August 13, 2001, in “Today’s Torah,” Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies)
This week’s opening verse reminds me of an old song titled “What a Difference a Day Makes.” “See,” we read, “I give you a blessing and a curse.” For the Israelites, as for us, that day changed our lives: We learned to choose blessing as our lot.… The verb in “I give you” ought to read in the past tense, “I gave.” The Torah already has been given, after all; Moses is just recapitulating its contents here. But tradition insists that we read it as “I give.” This week’s blessing is not about some historical fact that happened once and for all; it is about ongoing human existence. Apparently, we have an ever-present gift from God, an ever-present choice, perhaps, between blessing and curse. (Lawrence Hoffman, “Mixed Blessings: What a Difference Today Makes” in “Sabbath Week,” The Jewish Week)
They are virtually twins, two average peaks in a land where Himalayan ecstasies are not part of the landscape. Average mountains, average children. However, the peak of blessing, Mount Gerizim, is nearer the sun, moist and fruitful; the peak of curse, Mount Ebal, is lean, arid, and dry. Ramban adds a mystical dimension: Of the two mountains, Gerizim is to the south, symbolizing divine love; Ebal is to the north, symbolizing strict justice and law. Parents must give their children love and limits, concerns and curtailments. When push comes to shove, the ultimate choice in favor of blessing will depend upon the strength of the portion of love. (Shlomo Riskin, “The Mountain of Love” in “Sabbath Week,” The Jewish Week)
- Rabbi Artson states that Judaism is not based on “the personal preference of each individual Jew.” When should we put the good of the community above our own personal preference?
- Pointing out the potential of one’s actions was Moses’ role and remains the role of rabbis today. How much influence do you think present-day rabbis have on the lives of those they lead?
- Is it truly a blessing, as Rabbi Hoffman says, for us to be able to choose between blessing and curse? Would you rather have someone choose for you?
- What is your response to Rabbi Riskin’s metaphor about the two mountains?
Because I am primarily a “visual learner,” I am attracted to the first word of this portion, R’eih. I remember someone’s phone number better if I have visualized it on a list; I read from the Torah better if I can picture the vowels that were in the Tikkun; and I recall experiences better if I can replay them in my head as if they were on a VCR in my brain. It seems to me that our ancestors who went out of Egypt were also visual learners. They had lived in a country that was a “feast for the eyes” (although they weren’t able to partake of that feast), and this image stayed in their memories. Consider that they had seen big buildings everywhere, that the Egyptians had looked different than they did, that the Ten Plagues had been incredible sights, and that the successful crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the drowning of the Egyptians came under the category of “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!”
Yet the use of the word “see” at the beginning of Parashat R’eih is about something other than the physical act of seeing. Of the more than four hundred times in which the verb “see” is used in the Tanach, this is one of the few times in which it has special significance. Others include the following: In Genesis 27, Isaac, whose “eyes were too dim to see” (27:1), smells the clothes that he thinks are Esau’s and says, “R’eih, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that Adonai has blessed” (27:27). In Genesis 41:41, Pharaoh says to Joseph, “R’eih, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt” after Joseph has proposed his plan to save Egypt from famine. When Moses has doubts about whether Pharaoh is listening to him, God replies: “R’eih, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1). After the people bring their freewill offerings for the Tabernacle, Moses introduces the man in charge by saying, “R’u [plural of r’eih], Adonai has singled out by name Bezalel…” (Exodus 35:30). And in a phrase strikingly similar to the one at the beginning of Parashat R’eih, we read about clear-cut choices again in Deuteronomy 30:15: “R’eih, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
In each of the examples above, the speaker is announcing something that will have an impact on the future. We often use the imperative form when we want to get people’s attention. For example, when we are trying to make an important point, we say, “Look, this is what I want you to understand” or “Do you see what I mean?” The word r’eih is a way of drawing attention to what is happening or is about to happen, focusing on its importance, and recognizing that the future will be different based on the choice that is about to be made. Whether or not you can see the blessings or the curses in front of you, you have to believe that you can, and then you have to believe that God has given you the ability to do what is right as an individual and as a member of the Jewish community.
Stephen Karol is the rabbi of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY.
R'eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,417–1,450; Revised Edition, pp. 1,255–1,289;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,115–1,140