Re’eh – 5781

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

Last Shabbat, for Parshat Eikev Bill spoke about Shema – to hear or to understand. Bill explained that the eye takes in all the information simultaneously; in contrast, we hear only one sound at a time and we must put things together, words forming sentences and sentences forming paragraphs, until we can understand the whole concept or meaning.

Our parshah this week is Re’eh which means “to see”. So, why after a parshah so focused on hearing and understanding are we now commanded to re’eh… to see? Are we taking a tour of senses??

Of course, we know the Torah never allows us to stop at the simple meaning “to see” and so, when we dive a bit deeper, we learn that other interpretations would be to understand (just like shema) and further, to empathize or to promise (make a covenant with), and to accept or acknowledge.

As I listened to Bill last week talk about how the eyes receive information, I was thinking about how the brain has to translate the image into perception… that is to create meaning from some visual representation.

Physiologically, the eye transmits the image to the brain upside-down and reversed right-to-left. Our brain flips that image and then basically, scans our memories to assign meaning to that image. If you’ve never seen a flower before, your brain does not yet know how to process it. But once processed, it is basically a retrieval from the ‘filing cabinets’ of your mind and a matching game!

And when you visit the Dallas Arboretum and look at a whole garden of flowers, taking in the whole scene at one time, your brain processes the entire image such that you recognize and ascribe meaning that this is one of your favorite gardens.

BUT what about those who cannot see? Am I saying that they cannot see a flower and understand that it is a flower? Of course, they can!! But for those who are blind, they process information with other senses and still come to perception and understanding that the smell and feel of rose petals are called a rose and feeling the relative position of the petals and stem and leaves, the blind individual perceives ‘this is a rose.’

Continuing to build on the foundation which Bill laid last week: we need to focus our hearing and REALLY listen. Bill quoted Stephen Covey about how people listen with the intent to reply instead of really trying to understand what is being said. That’s honestly a weakness of mine which I actively try to manage in my work relationships. So often, I find that I listen and simultaneously try to categorize information and solve problems or fill gaps. I spend so much energy trying to ‘file’ things in the cabinets of my mind that sometimes I miss the undertones of the conversation… the things not said but which are imminently important to understanding the connections between the topics within the conversation.

It is the same with seeing for the purpose of understanding. Yes, you see images and your brain processes those images and ascribes meaning. But how many times have you looked at something a little differently later that day or the next and you SEE something new?!

Think about optical illusions. You know the image where one look shows you the old lady with big nose and a babushka; and then you blink and you refocus your eyes and see the young lady with the lovely head scarf. Or the classic illusion of MC Escher where stairs are going both up and down simultaneously.

When we see one image and then see the other, we are coming to understand two views of the same picture. This refocusing is a revelation, if you will… a revelation of two meanings. This is a similar to the deeper understanding by not just hearing, but REALLY listening. Interestingly, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

“However, if we examine the role of sight in Judaism, we discover something strange. Often, when the Torah seems to be using a verb or metaphor for sight it is actually referring to something not seen at all, but rather, heard.
Seeing, in Judaism, is ultimately about hearing. Israel is the people called on to reject images in favour of words; to discard appearances and follow, instead, the commanding voice.”

Applied to this week’s parshah, this refocusing our sight is the same as coming to a new level of understanding or appreciation. It is two sides of the same coin.

Indeed, the opening line of this parshah is Moses saying to the Israelites:
רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה ׃/
(re’eh anochi lifneychem hayom b’racha uklalah)
“Behold, I set before you today blessings and curses”

This sounds like a choice presented to the people… to either follow God’s commandments and reap the benefits, or not follow God’s commandments and suffer the consequences.

Is it really a choice? Or is it perhaps a combination of obligations that we are handed? I think it is the latter. Yes, you have a choice to follow the commandments put before you and you undertake these knowing both the blessings of following the laws and the consequences. And I also submit that consequences are not always negative.

Malka Strasberg Edinger in her dvar on this parshah last year commented that,

“Yet this phrase does not have to be read as a choice. Rather, it can be understood to encompass both: God giving us both blessings and curses at the same time. Life is full of both positives and negatives simultaneously. We all have blessings for which we’re grateful and experience hardships that feel like curses; they co-exist in our lives, and we don’t get to choose only the good or only the bad.”

I think this is really true. You don’t get to choose only the good or only the bad; you can’t have one without the other. In fact, I don’t think you can truly appreciate what is good in your life if you have not familiarity with what is not good. It’s a matter of gratitude.

Are you familiar with stories of people who live on the streets and know hardships are given some extra food or money… when they are blessed with meeting their own needs, they turn right around and help someone else! It has been widely studied, most often by psychologists and philanthropists, the notion that the poor give more (or that the rich are less altruistic).

“…the researchers found evidence that lower-class participants’ greater tendency to perform kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—behavior could be explained by their greater concern for egalitarian values and the well-being of other people, and their stronger feelings of compassion for others.” (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_poor_give_more )

Is it a stronger feeling of compassion? A sense of fairness? It is simply paying it forward?

When you are blessed in your life with health, family, work and safe living accommodations, I think you have a responsibility to acknowledge that this is not the case for everyone.

Two sides of the same coin – advantages and disadvantages: If you have the first, you are obligated to address the second. A specific teaching within this week’s Torah portion, states “Do not harden your heart, and close your hand from your needy brother”. I found on the JTS website a dvar by Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay in which she shared the teaching of Rabbi Yeshua Lalum, an Algerian community leader, who explained:

“If your heart hardens, your hand will close and your fingers will all appear to be of equal length. In that case you would say to the poor person, go out and make a living like I do. However, when you open your hand up, you can see that your fingers are not of equal lengths. Some are short and others are long. This is how God created them and they are interdependent.”

Rabbi Ruskay continues with:

“Those who are represented by the longer fingers have an inherent systemic advantage; those that are shorter are limited from the outset. When we act as if these advantages and disadvantages don’t exist, we are in fact hardening our hearts and closing our hands… we can open our hearts and our hands, acting generously toward each other and contending with the inequity that exists. Only by seeing inequity can we begin to address it.”

Threaded throughout Re’eh are other commandments which give instruction on empathy, fairness or kindness. Examples include the Laws of the Sabbatical Year (Shemittah, or release) in which we are commanded to cancel all debts and also to free any Hebrew slaves, making certain you provide them with basic needs. Also, to see and acknowledge those who are on hard times and can benefit from the leavings of your field – allow them to glean your fields every third year.

Behold, I set before you today blessings and curses

Parshah Re’eh commands us to acknowledge our blessings and encourages us to think of the ‘curses’, not necessarily as negative consequences, but as positive obligations to work towards the opportunity to share our blessings with others.

May your open eyes lead to understanding and gratitude; and may your gratitude open your hands and hearts to help others.

Shabbat Shalom