“See, I place before you today blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26).
It’s one of my favorite lines in all of Torah. Then again, I feel like I say that almost every week because there is always a verse that sparks my curiosity and helps me live well.
Blessing and curse. It’s right there, laid out before us. We must choose which path we want to walk down. Choose blessing. So simple right? Great! End of drash.
But Rabbi come on, if it was that obvious, wouldn’t we all choose blessing? I mean, who in their right mind would choose curse, as we seem to do – and time and time again?!
The truth is, we in our addictions aren’t the only ones who choose destruction over and over. Our Torah speaks about the human condition. It helps us uncover and answer the question: What is the human experience our Torah is speaking about?
This week, the 18th century Talmudic master, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman – famously known as the Vilna Gaon (his name literally means “the Genius of Vilna”) – sheds even more light on the verse. His commentary is interspersed below illuminating each word of our verse above:
See (Re’eh) – In the singular, so no person will say “Who am I? That I alone will choose a good path, when the majority of the world behaves badly.” Therefore, the verse says: “Re’eh See!” In singular form, see what is before you; do what is yours and don’t supervise the world.
Each of us has a role to play, a divine purpose and a portion of God’s sacred garden to tend to that is specific to us as individuals. Further, we must not get caught up with what others are doing or neglecting to do, that can serve as a justification for preventing ourselves from engaging in our sacred mission.
How am I cleaning my side of the street? How does my perception of the actions of others prevent me from engaging in sacred action? Am I letting what I cannot do prevent me from doing what I can?
I (Anochi) – And a person should not say: “How can I stand up against the evil inclination and all its tricks?” — Rather “Anochi” [name of God] will be with you to support and help, as our Sages, z’’l said: “A person’s [evil] inclination grows stronger against him every day unless The Holy Blessed One helps him” (Kiddushin 30a).
Our temptations and desires are strong and when left unchecked, can be destructive. Our minds and inclinations play tricks on us and attempt to convince us that we’ve “arrived” or even worse, that we shouldn’t even bother getting started. But our salvation and strength comes from the Almighty; and the good news is that in partnership, we can overcome our baser instincts.
How am I partnering with a Higher Power of my understanding? How do I seek support in the face of adversity and the relentlessness of my own character defects?
Place (Noten) — And it doesn’t say “I placed,” so a person shall not think that if one choses a bad path once, there is no repair, therefore it says, “place” – in present tense – therefore there is always an option to choose the good path – “And even until the day of one’s death, t’shuvah waits for him, and if one returns he is accepted immediately.”
T’shuvah is always a present tense invitation to mend our ways and return. Even at the moment before death, if one makes authentic t’shuvah, it is accepted. (Think Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.) No one is beyond repair and lost without the potential of being redeemed.
In what ways do I still believe that the damage I have caused is irreparable? What am I waiting for to make t’shuvah? What is preventing me from starting down a new path?
Before you all (Lifneichem) — And if a person says: “How am I to know what the good way is and what the bad way is? Because they are all covered and hidden.” The verse comes and declares: “Before you all” — See and judge, hear and see with a discerning eye the process of events of the people, and all will be clear before you.
We don’t live on an island. Our actions have consequences and our choices, for better or worse, have ripple effects on the entire world. Moreover, in order that we don’t fall into the same historical traps and pits of destruction, we must learn from events of the past and the decisions others have made. When we do, the right path is revealed; we just need to pay attention, be insightful, and have the courage to do the next right action.
Instead of saying, “I don’t know” because the answer appears to be hidden or I might not want to get an answer I don’t like, how can I invite clarity?
Today (HaYom) — And perhaps a person will say: “What mending do I have? If I’m filthy with sins, what can I do with all the transgressions I have done until now?” Therefore, the verse says, “Today” – every day must be in your eyes like new, and you can begin from it, and the master of t’shuvah is like a youth reborn.
Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Today! While it might feel like our sins have given us black lung of the soul, t’shuvah is God’s healing breath that starts purifying the stains on our souls. But we must be the ones doing the work. We need to invite God’s healing into the cracks of our brokenness.
How is today different from yesterday? How am I seeing the world in fixed ways? In what area of my life must I be “reborn”?
As we approach the month of Elul and begin to welcome in the vibrancy of Rosh Hashana (the new year) and high holidays, may we have true clarity to see the blessings and curses that are laid out before us.
May we choose blessings time and time again.
And may we also be reminded, we are not angels, we are not perfect entities, and when we fail and choose curses, God and t’shuvah are placed before us in the present moment, awaiting our return.