So, I arrived home yesterday morning. I have always been thrilled to return to New York. This time, not so much.
I miss Jerusalem. Terribly. The Hebrew word “norah” seems uniquely equipped to describe the depth of my longing.
Rabbi Lipskier (who I was delighted to see and who kindly gave me an Aliyah so I could say Gomel this morning) offered to pack my bags. I think he just wants my apartment. I may let him get his wish.
This week’s parsha is Re’eh. As regular readers may know, I’ve become increasingly inclined to dismiss coincidence merely as coincidence, at least insofar as matters Judaic are concerned. This week is another coincidence.
You see, Re’eh is all about the (unnamed) Jerusalem, what will happen when we arrive there, and what we are to do there (and not to do elsewhere). While the parsha is unusually wide-ranging (reminding us that the goyim sacrifice their own children, that we can eat giraffe but not hyrax, etc., etc.) Jerusalem is one of its central themes. I feel like it is calling me back, and I was especially pleased to have an Aliyah for this parsha (although my pesukim were all about permitted and prohibited food. Mmmmmmm. Giraffe. Tastes like chicken).
Coincidence aside, I have been fixated on one sentence. While I have read at least four different translations of it, here is my own: “You are not to do all that we do here today each man that is straight before his eyes.” When are we not to do these things? When we arrive in Jerusalem (and, a bit more broadly although I’m not absolutely sure of this, the Promised Land). What are we not to do? We are not do whatever we feel like doing. While my literal translation is a bit stilted (others speak of not doing whatever we desire, etc.), I like mine because it reminds me of what my grandmother used to say when we were eating and I was serving myself any and everything that looked good: you have big eyes. It is an expression that in my experience generally is used by parents to children to caution them to reign in their appetites, so it seems entirely fitting to me that this is how Ha’ Shem would address us.
(I also like the literal dimension of being told not to do “what is straight before your eyes.” What a wonderful way of describing the immediacy of impulse. For what is impulse but an immediate reaction to ‘what is straight before your eyes?’ Considered behavior is quite the opposite.)
What are we to do? Well, the parsha tells us. It begins with “Re’eh” “See.” “See I gave before you blessing and curse.” What is the blessing and what is the curse? Well (anticipating my favorite passage in Nitsavim – my bar mitzvah parsha which we read in a few weeks), the blessing is to follow Ha’Shem’s commandments. The curse is to disobey them. “Choose life for the sake that you and your seed will live.” (Netsavim).
And this got me thinking. It was only this summer that I finally began to appreciate the extraordinary and unique gift of Shabbat that Ha’ Shem gave us and that we gave to the world. (I’m not alone. Just yesterday, in The New York Times, Oliver Sacks, who episodically has been chronicling his final illness, wrote of discovering the beauty of Shabbat, something that he, too, came to appreciate only later.)
But there is another gift we have given to the world, a gift that is at least as important as Shabbat and (if I may verge on heresy here a bit) perhaps even more important (because without ithuman Shabbat would be impossible). That is the gift of knowing how to live in community with others, in peace with others, and with respect for others.
For while this passage in Re’eh may appear to be focused on matters like sacrifice and ritual, it is written far more broadly. ‘You are not to act simply as you want,’ it tells us. And it makes perfect sense that we receive this instruction just before entering the Land, and doing so without Moshe Rabbenu. In the desert, we had Moses to guide us, Moses to intervene for us, Moses to speak directly with Ha’ Shem for instruction and clarification and, if necessary – and it was necessary – Moses to plead with Ha’Shem to spare our miserable lives. But after Moses was gone, the direct line was going to be cut off. What we had was the word. We were left on our own with the guidebook, the instruction manual, of how we could survive and thrive and, conversely, how we would fail to do so if we didn’t follow the rules.
And there it is: a simple statement about survival in the absence of divine intervention. If you hope to survive in community with others (and who can survive if not in community with others?), then you’re going to have to curb your impulses and desires and channel them through the rules of life you are being handed. If everybody did whatever they felt like – if they did ‘what it was straight before their eyes’ to do – survival would be impossible. To my knowledge, never before in the history of mankind has such a statement been made in the context of free will.
And so it is our gift, given to us by Ha’Shem and transmitted by us to the rest of the world for the first time in the history of the world. It is a lesson on how to live together. It is, in short, the gift of survival. It is a lesson that teaches freedom is lovely (and necessary) up to a point, but life together would be impossible if everybody did whatever he or she felt like doing. Freedom you have, including the freedom to choose whether you thrive or die. But know that if you disregard the rules, your big eyes will lead you to real unpleasantness, even death. With apologies to Cole Porter, not “anything goes.” The gift we received is the gift of knowing what does and what does not go.
This is a lesson that seems completely lost in modern America. It is really worth thinking abou