Friday, August 14, 2009

Parshat Re'eh - פרשת ראה

"ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה - See! I give you today a blessing and a curse."
(דברים, יא: כו)

Parshat Re'eh opens with Hashem dividing B'nei Yisrael into two camps set up on two opposing mountains, with one group representing those who will be cursed for not hearkening to God's word, and the other group representing those who will be blessed for having fulfilled His will.

The S'forno takes a very black and white view of this incident and points out that there is no middle ground here. The commentary warns us not to conduct ourselves in a "middle-of-the-road" manner as Hashem grants here only two things, a blessing and a curse - things that are opposite in the extreme. If one doesn't find himself in the path of those who will be blessed, then unfortunately he will be cursed.

This is a very drastic and stark way of looking at things, but it is important to stop and realize that as Jews, we are obliged to constantly be aware of our actions and understand that all our actions are taking us on a path one way or another, and that it is imperative for us to constantly check ourselves.

On the other hand, there's a well-known expression "שביעים פנים לתורה - There's 70 faces to the Torah," meaning that although we can read a certain verse in the Torah one way, there's always another way in which we can understand it.

With this in mind, we can move on to a more encouraging perspective. Rav Yitzchak Blazer notes in his sefer, "Kochavei Or," that the concept of a blessing and a curse doesn't seem so incredible to us - after all, a "carrot and stick" approach is something even a three year old can grasp, and is so common that it hardly seems worthy of comment.

Rav Blazer notes, however, that the concept of the blessing and the curse is actually very different to the simple concept of reward and punishment that we are all familiar with. Rav Blazer explains that in modern states, we understand that if one does something wrong, he will be punished for his actions. If a person steals something, he will be fined or sent to prison. But if one abstains from doing such a thing, he will not be rewarded. As he says, "It's accepted to punish murders, thieves and the like, but it isn't normal to give reward to those who don't kill or steal."

And if we're talking about reward, who gets rewarded in societies like ours? The only people who get rewarded are almost always those who do exceptionally well - those who invent things, own massive businesses or worse; sportsmen and women whose contribution to society is all too often next to nothing.

Maybe now we can understand what is alluded to in the verse above; the blessing isn't just for those who excel - it's for us mortals too. Life isn't black and white and we all struggle with something or other. The person who naturally has a character defect and constantly battles with his fault, reminding himself of the importance of not giving in is doing a wonderful act. This person is working hard to refine his character in a way that makes Hashem incredibly proud of him, but in a simplified reward and punishment system he hasn't done anything right, he's simply doing that which is expected of him. All this person's hard work is ignored by those who judge in terms of "right" and "wrong."

Recently I've been wondering about society today and I realised that all we ever see in the media is how people have done wrong. There's scandals and crimes aplenty but when was the last time we saw a newspaper with the front page given over to something positive? Unfortunately, society today expects all that is good, and comes down like a tonne of bricks on failure of any sort. It seems clear to me that a massive reform is necessary - we don't need to constantly congratulate ourselves, but it is vitally important to take a step back from time to time and let others know that their good work isn't going unappreciated. It would seem that we learn as much from this pasuk.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom

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