Reeh: A Blessing and A Curse

“See, I give before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day. And the curse, if you will not listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, and you turn from the Way which I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26-28, translation mine).

The Sefat Emet (Pen name, “The Tongue of Truth,” of the Chasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905), in commenting on these verses, states that “[In] the blessing it says, ‘that you listen,’ but in the curse it says ‘if.’ Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. …Even if there is some sin—and indeed ‘there is no one so righteous as to do good and never sin’ (Eccles. 7:20)—it is only passing” (Green, 1998, pp. 302-3).

Rabbi Arthur Green, from whose masterful The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Phila., PA: JPS, 1998), the above is taken, universalizes the above reference by stating that, although only we Israelites can claim the Covenant dating from Mt. Sinai, all of Humanity “must contain that essential goodness.” In other words, all mortal beings who profess to follow a moral code have a share in the above statement. The veneer of civilization is very thin, and it is easy for immoral leaders and followers to destroy it. Humanity must work all the harder to preserve our world.

As a species, we are more divided than ever before. Yet we all share the same drives for survival, happiness, success in life, and safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Rather than reinforcing what divides us, we must seek what we hold in common as human beings: feelings, dreams, and aspirations.

At the time that Moses gave the above speech, he was mortally concerned that the Lord’s people were entering a society in which they would be a minority. As free men and women, nomadic in heritage, able to make their own decisions about where to live and whom to marry, they might swiftly assimilate among the more settled, agricultural peoples of Canaan, and, within a few generations, vanish as a unique people. Ironically, this remains a major concern for us Jews, thousands of years later—still separate, still asking the same questions.

As Jews, we are proud of our tribal, religious, cultural, and nationalistic differences, but, as human beings, we must always aim towards a common goal. As we aspire to political freedom, so must we work to understand similar political yearnings in others, provided that the debate is peaceful. The Golden Rule which we gave the World must guide the steps of all right-thinking humanity: if we cannot love all of our neighbors, let us, at least, respect them, and insure that we receive that same respect—neither as victors or victims, but as equals.

There is an old story about a woman—call her Ms. Richter—who invites her rabbi to visit her home, serving him a cup of tea on her best china, while they sit in the sun room which faces the back yard. Making small talk, the rabbi notices the fence separating the woman’s yard from her neighbor’s, Ms. Jones; he remarks about the freshly-washed sheets and clothing Ms. Jones has hung in the yard, and asks if they are friendly with one another.

“That woman?” scoffs Ms. Richter, “I wouldn’t give you the time of day with her. Why, look at the laundry she hangs out there, on her line. It’s filthy!”

The rabbi gets up, walks to the window, runs his finger along it, and replies, gently,

“Ms. Richter, there is nothing wrong with your neighbor’s laundry. I’m sorry to tell you that the problem is your windows: they’re dirty.”

When we look at the faults of other people, other nations, are we so quick to judge their shortcomings, or should we take the trouble to look beneath the headlines, beyond the shrill cries of their politicians, and see that, beneath the “dirt” which separates us, they are, perhaps, just people—not far different from ourselves, hoping for a Better Tomorrow for themselves and their children? Or are we satisfied with simply looking at them through a dirty window of stereotyping? It’s not easy: we are, after all, all human beings, not Angels—but God gave the Torah to us. What are we to do with it?

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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