Sermon Shabbat Re’ei 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
I know it's somewhat unbelievable in this virtual world of COVID-19, but public schools around Tucson have now started, or are about to start. Their classes are being held either all online, or blended, or in-person. Our own Beit Simcha Religious School begins this coming week, on Sunday August 23rd on Zoom, and the High Holy Days are coming up just five weeks from tonight, primarily online.
This Shabbat we will bless the coming new month of Elul because Rosh Chodesh is Thursday and next Friday, beginning the final month of the Jewish year. It's the time when we start to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, reflect on where we are in our lives, where we are headed, where we've been. We are at the beginning period of examining the choices we make and the way our choices have worked out for us in the past year.
The opening lines of this week's parsha, Re'eh, are famously about choice. At the start of the Torah portion Moses says to 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'ha klallah 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 the Lord your God which I command you today. And the curse if you don't obey or listen to the mitzvot of the Lord your God.
Re’ei goes on to talk about the possibility of turning away from God and the mitzvot, and commands us, when we go into our land, to read aloud this blessing and this curse on top of two different mountains to the whole community assembled. On the surface, it seems like a simple, powerful 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, the Deuteronomic covenant that lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics. And it must have been a pretty stark, black-and-white experience for our ancient ancestors: the blessings shouted from one mountain, the curses from the other. If you do good, you get candy. If you be bad, you get whacked…
But commentator Nechama Liebowitz points out that it's not really the case that there are two parallel “ifs” here in Re’ei, “the blessing IF you listen, the curse IF you do not," as most translations have it. No, it’s more complicated than that. The standard “ifs” hide a very important fact: The Torah uses two different words. It reads "et habracha ASHER tishm'u", "v'haklalla IM-lo tishm'u". That is, the blessing, when you listen, and the curse, if you do not.
In a footnote on Rashi the commentary Torat Chayim summarizes this point as K'tiv haklallah b'lashon tnai, v'habracha b'lashon vedai—"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. You will get the blessing. You might get the curse.
Modern teacher Nechama Liebowitz makes a fascinating point about this. She says that God actually gives us a line of credit, a mitzvah equity loan, and we can borrow blessing on the speculation that we will eventually do mitzvot. It seems like a good deal for us, but not necessarily a good one for God. Even though the Fed’s Prime Rate for borrowing these days is effectively zero, and mortgages are running at historic lows, none of us would ever qualify for a home loan on the basis that we just might, eventually, if it turned out that we were good, pay it back. Yet that is what the text implies. We get the blessings first, and then God hopes we do mitzvot that qualify us to have received the blessings we already got.
This is a comforting thought; we get blessings on the hope that we will do mitzvot. God rewards us and then hopes—prays?—that we act ethically and fulfill our responsibilities.
But there is yet another way to read this passage. How about if we translate it,
"I'm setting before you a blessing and a curse, a blessing because you are with me today listening to the mitzvot of God your Lord that I am sharing with you,
the curse if you don't continue to listen and be linked in community with me and with each other, and instead turn off to a path that leads to you not knowing what is holy in your life…"
This takes the phrase asher tishm'u, “if you listen” and reads it as "because you are already currently listening together with your community." That's how the Maharam, a 13th-century German Jewish commentator, reads it. He points to a connection between these lines and Psalm 133, which says:
Ki sham tziva Adonai et habracha, chayim ad-ha-olam. “Because there… God commanded blessing, life eternal.”
The commentator connects this Psalm to Re’ei, in which we are first commanded to pronounce blessing and curse on two different mountains. There God commanded blessing, the Psalm says, and eternal life. But if you look at the beginning of the Psalm you will also find the famous text Hineh ma tov umana’im shevet achim gam yachad—the one we sing so often at every Jewish event, “How good and lovely it is for family to be all together.” All blessings based in assembling in community.
And following that sugary beginning, a later sentence in the Psalm Ki sham tziva Adonai et habracha, “because there God commanded blessing” means that when family and community come together, when shevet achim gam-yachad, sham, there in that very coming together, that’s when God makes a gift of blessings to us. The sharing of Jewish community, of doing mitzvot together is the bracha, the blessing. And that blessing of being together in community, in synagogue, is life at its fullest.
So perhaps we already get blessings just by doing the work as a community to be ready for the chagim, by spending this coming month of Elul looking at our past year and seeking to find new ways to improve our lives and our temple and our community. By coming together to prepare for and celebrate the High Holidays, to share joy, to remember as well that we are fearful and anxious and humble together, that we all long to be blessed and inscribed together in the Book of Life, and that we are each vulnerable and each flawed, we receive the blessing of life. It is this in itself that is a blessing we definitely can have, just for the asking—or rather, just by showing up and being present. In this interpretation of Re’ei, being together in Jewish community means being inscribed fully in the book of our own lives.
So how do we fulfill Re’ei’s commandment that we must come together in community to receive blessing when the Coronavirus health restrictions keep us out of the synagogue, mostly? When those restrictions mean that most of our experience of community has become two-dimensional, shared through a laptop or tablet or an iphone’s screen? How do we realize that blessing when everything, especially assembly itself, feels so permanently strange and impersonal and potentially deadly?
The answer may lie in the first word of our portion: Re’ei, see! For if we take this opportunity to see that we can still build community in these limited ways, for now, we can not only preserve but deepen the connections we do have. We can participate in the limited, safe assembly that is possible. We can join the Facebook Live! feed when we can’t come in person. We can sign up and participate actively in Zoom and blended Adult Education Academy classes. Our kids can connect in online instruction and prayer at Religious School. And soon enough, on the High Holy Days, we can connect to our community online or in small ways in person or perhaps even in unique, safe events in which we can actually be there for real, in 3-D.
My friends, we Jews are geniuses at adapting. Our religion has evolved many times over the centuries, and in this current, God-willing temporary limitation on assembling in person we must find new ways to safely connect and allow real community to flourish.
There is a great story that illustrates this, updated. The world’s top scientists suddenly announce the climate change calamity they’ve been warning about for years is coming to pass. The polar ice caps are melting all at once, and a great flood will cover the entire globe. It will be catastrophic, and it will happen in only four days. To comfort the people of the world, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and the Chief Rabbi of Israel all appear on a global television feed.
The Pope says, “My children, you have four days to accept our Lord and savior into your heart and find comfort by his side in Heaven.”
The Dalai Lama says, “My friends, I ask all of you to embrace Buddhist teachings, remove all attachments, and find inner peace in the midst of disaster.”
The Chief Rabbi says, “My people, we have four days to learn how to live underwater.”
We may not have to live under water, but we Jews now have the opportunity to adapt this odd new reality and make it into the blessing we have been promised.
Remember, Re’ei has promised, God is predisposed to favor us. Forgiveness and love are there for us in advance. We only need to look at our own lives and make a sincere, honest effort to find, and be, our best selves, do mitzvot, and choose to do so, as best we can and in every way we can, in community.
On this Shabbat of Re’ei, and during the coming month of Elul, may we each make the choice to accept God’s offered blessings, in community—and may we then also work, in goodness, together, to be worthy of them.