We currently find ourselves at a very important time in the Jewish Calendar, that of the transition from the intensive period of mourning the destruction of the Temple, the very sundering of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, and the time period of rebuilding that relationship, the Month of Elul, which will begin next week, which is a time of deep soul searching, and self-improvement.
During this time, we read the Parsha of Re’eh, which is the upcoming Torah portion. Parshat Re’eh speaks about many topics such as Kashrut (Dietary Laws), Tzedakah (Charity), and the three Pilgrimage festivals. But the most profound aspect of Parshat Re’eh comes at the very beginning of the Parsha – with the opening verse: “See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse.”
In the simple understanding of this verse, and the continuing section, God says to the Jewish people – if you follow my commandments, all will be well, and if you do not, you will be punished.
Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance, an apt text for this time of year, uses this verse as a proof text for one of the most fundamental and critical aspects of Jewish theology – that of freedom of choice. Maimonides states in Chapter 5 Halacha 3 “Any deed which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil” In other words, the power to do good or evil acts is completely in our hand; God does not interfere in the choices of humans.
This is the very basis of the relationship between the human and the divine, that the Divine allows the human to choose, to reach and strive for connection with the good, and the Divine, and that by definition the human will fail, and at times choose incorrectly. The power is given to the human, to make choices, decisions, and even to fail.
But, many times in our lives, we are unsure what the decision should be, or even what the in our lives is “good” and “evil”. I would like to suggest, that that is why the verse begins with the word “Re’eh” see or behold. That part of what the verse is trying to teach us is that it is upon us to see the difference between good and evil, it is not simply that we are given free will to choose between good and evil, but in fact, that we are given the ability and the power to choose how we perceive what is good, and what is evil.
What that means in effect, is that the power of perception is in our hands. Often, the same situation can be seen as a blessing, and as a curse. It is up to us to choose to see our situation in a positive light, to choose the constructive, to choose the good.
Viktor Frankl, in his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning states, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
As we find ourselves at this critical juncture between destruction and rebuilding, Re’eh comes to remind us to choose to rebuild ourselves, our relationships with each other, and with God. But the power of seeing the good, and choosing to see our lives and situations in the most positive light, is an essential first step towards that rebuilding.