Shabbat Re'eh, Rosh Hodesh Elul, 5776 - 2016

Post date: Sep 2, 2016 4:07:21 PM

Parshat Re’eh 5776, 9/3/2016

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ.

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

This week, we read parshat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:16-16:17. This Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new month immediately preceding the High Holidays. This month of Elul, we blow the shofar every weekday in order to remind us to prepare for the coming Days of Awe. The wisdom of Re’eh could not be more relevant.

I've often been asked, what's your favorite piece of music, or who is your favorite composer, much as people are sometimes asked what is your favorite piece of literature. There are rarely simple answers to such questions. We incorporate great art. We appreciate and understand it differently as we ourselves change. So too with passages from Torah.

Yet, if there is any passage that consistently resonates with how I think, feel, and view the world, it would be this week's Torah portion, Re’eh. It opens with the command, “See!” Much as two weeks ago, we read the command, “Sh’ma” - listen, this week we are commanded to observe:

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

See, I present before you, today, blessing and calamity.

And then, it exhorts us to choose well, to “choose life.”

This message fits neatly with my perennial theme of taking responsibility for our actions, for choosing and learning the consequences of those choices, and then, for making adjustments if need be, to change the outcomes.

But there is another, complementary message in Re’eh. It is complementary in the sense that it completes and makes whole - it is the Yin for other message’s Yang. It is that we must always be aware that there are limits to our ability to effect outcomes; that the world can be unpredictable, imperfect and unfair. Each of us in our own life experiences this. More importantly, at any given moment in our society, there are those who get a raw deal, those who get left out, those who, by any measure, do not have the means we have.

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ.

“For there will never cease to be those in distress, from the very depths of the land.” As if to say that if we do not see the needy, we are not looking deeply enough.

And it continues, “Therefore, I command you to openly open your hand…” using this double-word construct in Hebrew to emphasize that when we help someone, we must not begrudge them the assistance they need.

This concept is summarized in the second line of Rabbi Hillel’s famous 3 part adage, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?”

The Torah commands us to see, to choose, and to help. These three elements are, separately and collectively, fundamental to our living in community. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not only occasions of individual renewal and atonement, but also of communal renewal and atonement.

To “see” is to notice, recognize, and acknowledge others. This is not an easy task, as acknowledging another means acknowledging their full experience of the world - their understanding of the world, with their own unique beauty and pain. To see another is to recognize that we cannot always help, but, at the same time, to acknowledge that the pain of another is true, real, and felt.

Choosing is discussed extensively in this election season - choose a candidate, choose life, choose security. In reality, the important choices we make are those small, daily behaviors that we push aside. It is choosing to greet a stranger, to thank a waitress, or to give change to someone in need. Elections matter - choosing officials to represent us and our interests at any level of government matters. But our choices each and every minute contribute to the world in ways more far-reaching than any elected official ever could.

Lastly, the Torah commands us to help - not just help, but openly, lovingly help without need for acknowledgment or praise. Helping is described here as “opening your hand.” Anthropological research suggests that an open hand is a universal human sign of peace and safety. This is why so many cultures have positive signs or greetings that involve an open hand. The approach to shake a hand, a high five, a wave, placing hands together to bow forward - these are all signifiers of coming toward another person in peace, with positive intentions. When we open our hands to one another - particularly to the neediest among us - we are showing the same positivity. It is not helping out of pity or helping to have thanks thrust upon us in return, but rather helping with entirely peaceful, positive intentions. We approach others to help with an open hand.

As we introduce the coming Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, let this be our three-fold challenge - to see, to choose, and to help.

Shabbat shalom,

Samuel Asher, Yvonne Asher