Do We Have Eyes? Let’s Use Them.
This week’s portion, Re’eh describes various topics that are related to sight – to seeing, in other words, “perceiving and correctly interpreting the light waves that we receive”; we make decisions according to what we see. According to modern science, vision occurs when light is processed by the eye and then interpreted by the brain. This cognitive process involving the perception and interpretation of our environment and observed reality, really made me think as I was studying this portion. According to Yochanan, the Bore Olam (the Eternal God) is light and there is no darkness in him which begs the question, how do I process the light of the Bore Olam?
Our portion begins with God showing us the two options for all our decisions: blessings and curses. Then, Moshe gives us various instructions regarding places of worship (12:1-28) followed by commandments against idolatry (12:29 -13:19). He then develops the theme of self-mutilation (14:1-2), how to handle mourning, our diet including the limits of what we can and cannot eat 14:3-21, rules on tithing (14:22-25), on how we should handle the forgiveness of debts (15:1-11), about the release and treatment of Hebrew slaves (15:12-18), and about the firstborn male, the bechor (15:19-23). At the end, Moshe reminds the people of the sacrifices they are to offer during the Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrim Festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (16:1-17).
But today, I would like to focus on the first verse which develops the flow for the remainder of the parashah: “See, I am setting before you today the blessing and the curse: the blessing if you will obey the commandments of YHVH your God, which I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obeythe commandments of YHVH your God but turn aside from the way that I command you today, following other gods that you have not known.” Devarim 11:26-28
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם: בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. Re’eh anochi noten lifneichem hayom brachah u’klalah. אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְוֺת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם. Et-habrachah asher tishme’u el-mitsvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi metsaveh etchem hayom.וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֺת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם: לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. Vehaklalah im-lo tishme’u el-mitsvot Adonai Eloheochem v’sartem min-haderech asher anochi metsaveh etchem hayom lalechet acharei elohim acherim asher lo-yadatem.
First, “See” is such a broad verb to which we can allot many more meanings such as to observe, to look, analyze, interpret, perceive, attend to, to search, inquire, consider, to fix our attention on something specific, to be deliberately aware, to focus, think, judge, to care, support, defend and to register. It is, in short, using a physical sense to interpret our reality. If we don’t see, then we won’t recognize if we are living within a blessing or a curse.
Now, “seeing” is exclusive to the individual. For example, in a scene or a drawing, my eyes may interpret one color while someone else might see something completely different. I remember that we were once sent a drawing of a shoe. It’s incredible, the same picture of the shoe on the cell phone was seen by some as white/pink while others, including me, saw it in turquoise and gray tones. The difference in perception of the color occurred due to an effect called “color constancy”, which in short is how our brain interprets visible light waves.
For this reason, the Bore Olam begins this portion by directing us “to see according to the capacity that He has given us”. We cannot see what others see rather we must each focus on what we see and how we interpret it. To see implies an additional effort to stop, to consider, and then meditate upon it. Have you ever sat down to simply look at a tree or a sunset, an insect, or yourself in a mirror? In order to see, we must stop and when we do, we begin to see a universe within, that we would not even notice if we were driving at 90 km per hour.
Second, “I set before you”. God places the responsibility “on you”. No one is more responsible than me for how I see and perceive my reality. If we have the right to decide, we must assume responsibility for our decisions.
Third, “before you“, implies that actions which happen to the individual affect the entire community. Every action I decide to do or not will affect my environment. We are interconnected beings. In this case, the blessings and curses affect us individually, but they also affect the collective.
Fourth, “Today”– not yesterday, and not tomorrow. This is the God of “starting over” or as our RANEBI constantly reminded us, “He is the God of beginning again”. Our God allows our present decisions and actions to reverse past ones, so we focus on the “now” because tomorrow is uncertain. In every moment, we must choose. Let’s imagine that we are struggling with an addiction; we live one moment at a time. If 5 minutes ago, we decided to do something wrong and went and bought a substance that would harm us, within the next 5 minutes, we can still “choose” to throw it away. We can apply this same ability to an eternal, continuous present. What matters is TODAY, no matter what our past mistake is, we can still rectify it TODAY. TODAY is the time to be reborn, to start over, to get up, and to abandon whatever harms us.
Fifth, “the blessing and the curse.” If we read the verses well, we will see that the blessing is tantamount to obeying, and the curse to disobeying. The consequences are clear and expounded upon in the Torah – we have a choice. This implies the greatest gift of God to us – (Bechirah Chofshit), Free Will – the ability to decide. Deciding is a voluntary, personal and present action. Even if we decide to stop making decisions, this too is a choice.
It seems that in this life we must constantly decide as we read in the Torah where it says that we must choose what and how to eat, who our God will be, in what place we will honor God, what kind of offering we will present before the Creator, who is a false prophet and who is not, how we manage God’s provision for us – which involves tithing to the poor, the needy, the widow and the orphan, how to forgive debts in the Sabbatical year, how we should be seen by the Eternal and travel to see Him during the Shalosh Regalim, His three Pilgrim Festivals. The right decision will be born out of the action of “seeing”, of seeing correctly. If we do not see, then we will not be able to do justice, as the next portion, Shoftim teaches us.
This week’s Haftarah portion invites us to break paradigms which would be impossible to break if we do not “see”. For example, how can I buy without money, (it is an action of bartering) or without payment at all? (Isaiah 55:1-2) Because the price with which it is bought takes effort, and effort involves obedience. Many people today, as in the Middle Ages, prefer to “pay” for a place in “Heaven” through papal bulls or giving alms as offerings to “buy God”. God does not need our money! To be pleased, He asks for something that costs us, even if it has no measurable economic value, and that is obedience.
So, we must look beyond our eyes and our logic, in order to move forward in our lives. I was recently questioned about why I was so generous with poor people. I know that the Torah commands us to help the widow, the orphan and the poor. I told them, until now, I have never seen anyone who is poorer after giving to others. These words were enough to cause absolute silence in those who asked me, however, even though they had more money than I do, they still did not want to pay “the price of obedience.”
My prayer for this Shabbat is that the Eternal God opens our eyes in the same way He opened Gehazi’s eyes when asked by the prophet Elisha. But Gehazi could not move forward because he preferred material wealth. Let us ask the Bore Olam to expand our spectrum and visual field. Tehillim 119:18 -19 says “Open my eyes, so that I may contemplate the wonders of your Torah. On this earth I am a foreigner; do not hide your Mitzvot from me”. And Tehillim 36:8 -10 says, “They are satisfied with the abundance of Your house; You give them to drink in the river of Your delights. Because in You is the source of life and in Your light, we can see the light”. Extend your love to those who know you and your justice to those with a sincere heart. Do we dare to see? Can we decide to stop in order to see? Do we analyze and meditate upon what we see? Does seeing help us make correct decisions?
May the Bore Olam open our physical and spiritual eyes and our conscience to make good decisions.
Sr. Mauricio Quintero