Commentary for Re’eh

9 Sep

This week’s parshah continues the theme of reward and punishment that is prevalent throughout Deuteronomy, but with an interesting and very important twist.  The parshah begins with the following passage: “See that I present before you today a blessing and a curse.  The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, that I command you today.  And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did not know (Deut. 11:26-28).”  This all sounds like stuff we’ve heard before.  Just last week we read that if we obey God’s commandments we will have rain in the proper seasons and God will protect us from our enemies, but if we don’t, there will be famine and our enemies will conquer us, and that wasn’t even the first big treatise of this nature that we have heard in the Torah.

 

One of the first, longest, and more famous speeches of this nature in the Torah is found back in Leviticus 26.  There, the section dealing with the rewards starts “If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them (26:3)” and the section dealing with the punishments starts with the similar “And if you do not listen to Me, and you do not perform all of these commandments (26:11).”  This formula matches up rather well with the mention of the curses in beginning of this week’s parshah (“And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today”), but the mention the blessings is different.

 

The mention of the blessings in this week’s parshah strays from the “if” of the “if; then” formula that these passages usually take in order to teach us a very important lesson.  The word “if” is not only omitted, but it is replaced with the word “that.”  This radically changes the meaning of the phrase.  The use of “if” in Lev. 26 and in the introduction to the curses in this week’s parshah sets up a causal relationship between what we do and what will happen.  If we don’t follow God’s commandments, we will be punished.  If we do, we will reap the benefits. Here, though, when the Torah is talking about the “the blessing” placed before the Jewish People, instead of using “if” it uses “that.”  The blessing is not divine protection and sustenance that God will provide us with in exchange observing mitzvot.  “The blessing” is “that you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God.”  In other words, observing God’s mitzvot isn’t the means by which we receive the blessing, but rather a blessing in and of itself.  Assurances of Divine protection and sustenance are nothing to scoff at, but the Torah teaches us that the true blessing comes from the way performing mitzvot enriches our lives, encouraging us to think and explore ourselves spiritually and intellectually, and creating communities and support networks to help both ourselves and others with basic needs both social and physical.  Performing mitzvot should never be viewed as a ritual to go through for the purposes of currying Divine favor.  It is not a means to an end, but rather an end in and of itself.

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