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Seventy Faces of Torah Joyful “Seeing”

By Rabbi Adam Lavitt

(Parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

A few weeks ago, the largest glacier ever broke off the Antarctic ice shelf. As global temperatures soar and shorelines shrink at an accelerated rate, we become more aware of ways in which our resources are limited. This is compounded by our reactions to these realities. We fear the instability we are witnessing around the world and feel compelled to hold onto whatever resources might help us maintain our sense of safety, however illusory, for a little bit longer.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses addresses the Israelites before they cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” The people will receive blessing if they follow God’s commandments, and curse if they abandon these sacred community norms. They are being asked to imagine together, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, how to properly relate to having a fixed place.

The medieval Italian rabbi and commentator, Ovadia Sforno, explains Moses’ opening words. Sforno says that the word “see” means “pay good attention so that you will not…relate to everything half-heartedly.” We must become fully present to and accepting of the lives we have. How are we to do this? According to Sforno, the rest of our verse gives us this guidance. On the words “this day I set before you”, he comments:

Remember that I present you this day with the choice of two extremes, opposites. The blessing is an extreme in that it provides you with more than you need, whereas the curse is another extreme making sure that you have less than your basic needs. You have the choice of both before you; all you have to do is make a choice.

According to Sforno, Moses opens his speech by demanding the Israelites relate wholeheartedly to their world, and to the new life they will embody as they enter the promised land, finally arriving at a place of protection, power and privilege after a lifetime of living day-to-day in the desert. Moses is saying, as we come to this juncture, we can easily allow our historical experience to cause us to focus exclusively on what we lack. This way of living brings about the “curse” of disconnection from the web of life and makes us feel we have less than we need. Alternately, we can choose to acknowledge what we have, and joyfully receive the overabundance of gifts that are all around us.

The path of blessing, of choosing to frame our experiences in a way that allows us to recognize the gifts that we have, leads to a feeling of joy. This quality of joyful “seeing” is central to Moses’ address: the word sameach, “joyful” appears only one time in each of the other five books of the Torah, but twelve times in Deuteronomy, and seven in this portion alone. How can we demonstrate this recognition?

Moses goes on to describe the joy of bringing a portion of the harvest the people will be blessed with to the priests, and feasting on it with neighbors, including those who dwell at the margins of society: “You and the Levite and the stranger living among you shall rejoice (v’samachta) in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household” (26:11). Later, Moses says curses will befall the nation not because they served idols or abandoned God but “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy (b’simcha) and gladness out of the abundance of all things” (28:47). In this sense, joy is the reward of seeking to give joy to others. Moses suggests that we can embody the “blessing” of having enough in our lives by approaching others with generosity of heart.

In my work as a chaplain, I see the power of the choice Moses offers every day. Recently, I visited a dying woman I had never met before. Her son said she had been a difficult mother, and was often unkind to him and to his siblings. Given his mother’s treatment of him, I was surprised to see how tenderly he stroked his mother’s hair, and how kindly he spoke to her. When I commented on the generosity of heart he extended to his mother, he said it was a healing gift for him to be able to be with his mother this way in their final days together. He chose the path of blessing, extending his care beyond the boundaries of his logical desire to protect himself, and harvesting the joy available to him there. We always have this choice.

As we relate wholeheartedly to the life we have, we gain a joyful awareness of the blessings that surround us. At the very end of the Torah portion, Moses imagines his people living within this framework of abundance. As he instructs the Israelites about the three pilgrimage festivals during which they must bring offerings to the Temple, he says,

Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all…shall appear before God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before God empty-handed, but each with [their] own gift, according to the blessing God has bestowed upon you. (16:16-17).

Here the people practice generosity as a way to see how much they have. They could settle for self-preservation, and hold onto the harvest that, after all, grew in their field and only emerged through the labor of their hands. Instead, they are to bring a tithe, a tenth of their harvest, moving beyond a sense of ownership to acknowledge the Source that provided this abundance to them. This offering is an expression of the generosity of spirit that arises from this kind of attention.

This spiritual work is the foundation for counteracting the greed that we encounter in our public sphere. It allows us to see the blessings that surround us, and to acknowledge that we do actually have the resources to feed and shelter everyone. We just need redistribution of resources, which requires acknowledging what we have, and extending it to others with a newfound generosity of heart. After all, what we have does not just belong to each individual, but to the seven billion people on this planet, to the earth itself, and to the Source of life that animates the earth and all that dwells on it. As we choose the path of blessing, we will discover the bounteous harvest within our lives. This is already a material reality, but we need to make it our spiritual reality.

Rabbi Adam Lavitt is Rabbi-Chaplain at Hebrew SeniorLife. He graduated from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2012, and served assistant rabbi at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, and campus rabbi at Swarthmore College. He has been a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a JOIN for Justice Clergy Fellow, and recently became a Jewish spiritual director through the Bekhol Levavkha at Hebrew Union College. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his partner Alex.

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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