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The Benefit of the Doubt Torah Talk Parshat Re’ei 5778

We celebrate the new month of Elul on Sunday, August 12th, the beginning of the final month of the Jewish year. It's the time of year to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we've been and where we are headed.

The opening lines of this week's parsha, Re'ei, are famously about choice. In that passage Moses says to us, the people,

"Re'ei, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u'klalla. Et habracha asher tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi m'tzaveh etchem hayom. V'haklallah im-lo tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem…

"See, I give you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God that I command you today. And the curse if you don't obey or listen.”

On the surface, this seems like a simple restatement of the central message repeated all through Devarim: if you do good you will be blessed, if you do evil you will be cursed. This Deuteronomic covenant lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics.

But commentator Nechama Leibowitz points out that these are not really two parallel “if’s” here, “blessing IF you listen, curse IF you do not," though most translations hide that. The Torah uses two different words: it reads "et habracha ASHER tishm'u", "v'haklalla IM-lo tishm'u". That is, the blessing, because you listen, and the curse, if you do not.

Rashi comments that, "the curse is written in the conditional, and the blessing in the declarative." That is, the blessing of God is definite while the curse is only a possibility.

Leibowitz adds that God actually gives us a line of credit, a “mitzvah equity loan” if you will, and we can borrow blessings on the speculation that we will likely do mitzvot. It’s a good deal for us, if not necessarily for God. This is a comforting thought: we get blessings on the likelihood that we will do mitzvot. God rewards us and then hopes—prays?—that we act well and do good.

As we approach the season of Teshuvah, the time of return, our portion of Re’ei gives us added hope that God will always give us the benefit of the doubt, and is even extending us credit in advance to help us with our return to being our best selves. What a wonderful gift this is. All we need to do is to take advantage of the opportunity.

May it be our choice to embrace holiness and goodness in the coming month of Elul and in the days of return that follow.

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