Re’eh, August 14,2020
When I was a kid, in the days before cable tv, the local channels would show movies on Sundays. These movies were usually terrible, a thing to fill time around the Three Stooges, Candlepin bowling and golf. One of those terrible movies was The Gods Must Be Crazy. If you haven’t seen it, don’t. It’s pretty terrible and, especially by today’s standards, pretty racist. A tribe living in the Kalahari desert away from modern civilization encounters a glass Coca-Cola bottle that had been tossed out of an airplane and landed intact. Thinking it a gift from the gods, it is revealed to have many uses, and at first everyone welcomes it, but over time it becomes a source of division and calamity, such that they have to get rid of it. What had seemed like a blessing was now a curse. Hijinks, of course, ensue. But the main thrust for these tribal folks is that that which appears to be a blessing is often a curse, and vice versa.
This week, at the beginning of our Torah portion, Re’eh, we’re confronted by a similar idea. Here, in Moses’ third sermon to the people in Deuteronomy, the idea of blessings and curses is raised. It won’t be the last; we’ll see them come up a couple more times as we reach the end of the Torah, as the blessings and curses are recited from Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim before entering the land. In each case, just like here, the blessings and curses are presented as outcomes; blessings if you follow the commandments, curses if you follow after other gods instead.
For many this feels severe; the kind of consequences a very tired parent issues to a child when they’re out of ideas. But I’d like to propose another way of looking at this text. It is entirely possible that, like our friends in the terrible movie, the blessing and the curse might be the same outcome, the same experience. How we experience it, however, is influenced by whether we are engaged in Torah or have turned away from Torah. That engaging in Torah, and by that I mean studying Torah, practicing Torah including and especially in our interactions with others, and in fact living Torah to the best of our abilities, the same experience that might feel like a curse otherwise can, in fact, be experienced as a blessing instead. It’s not that the practice of Torah changes the outcomes; it changes our experience of those outcomes. It’s not something imposed upon us from outside; it’s a choice that we make. We may not choose our experiences, but we choose how we will respond. So, which will we choose? To engage in Torah—engage in acts of compassion and social responsibility, or to go astray on the path of idolatry of the self, refusing to see our impact on others? That is for each of us to decide. But it is informative that the text tells us how we can decide with the very first word, re’eh: look. We need to really look carefully at our actions, our reactions, our choices, to see whether it is a blessing or curse before us. Therefore, may we look carefully, see clearly, and, through Torah, embrace our experiences as blessings. Amen.