How We Look at Things: Commentary on Parashat Re’eh 5782
By Rabbi Dena Bodian, Hebrew Seminary alum, ordained 2010; College Chaplain and Campus Rabbi at Wellesley College

This week’s parashah starts seemingly with a command: רְאֵה (Re’eh, “See”) (Deuteronomy 11:26). Just as earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy, we encountered the first paragraph of the שְׁמַע (Shema, in Deuteronomy 6:4), commanding us to “hear” or “heed” (in American Sign Language, “FOCUS/PAY ATTENTION”), here we are being commanded to “see or to “look.”

Rabbi Dena Bodian demonstrates “focus/pay attention” in ASL; August 21, 2022.

The beginning of Re’eh ostensibly sets the stage for the scene in פָּרָשַׁת כִּי תָבוֹא (Parashat Ki Tavo), enacted on two opposing mountaintops, in which the entire people bears witness to a series of blessings and curses to ensue, depending on the people’s choices. Re’eh begins:

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃ אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃ וְהַקְּלָלָ֗ה אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְסַרְתֶּ֣ם מִן־הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לָלֶ֗כֶת אַחֲרֵ֛י אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם׃ וְהָיָ֗ה כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָתַתָּ֤ה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה֙ עַל־הַ֣ר גְּרִזִ֔ים וְאֶת־הַקְּלָלָ֖ה עַל־הַ֥ר עֵיבָֽל׃

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of your God but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. (Deuteronomy 11:26–29).

The פְּשַׁט (peshat, ‘contextual meaning’) of the text simply has God pointing out the mountains on the east side of the Jordan, indicating that the blessings will be called from Mount Gerizim (where half of the tribes will be gathered) and the curses from Mount Ebal (where the other 6 tribes will muster), with the Levites reciting each blessing and curse. After each utterance, the entire people is to respond אָמֵן (“amen”) (cf. Deuteronomy 27:15–26).

But if you take the first verse of Re’eh out of the scene-setting context, it can serve as a summation of God’s relationship with the Israelites: God provides a blessing (redemption, manna, commandments, democracy)and somehow, the Israelites manage to see it as a curse: they miss Egypt, they’re bored of manna, they build an idol, they want a king just like everyone else.

So much of our responses to life are dependent on how we perceive them. A friend of mine referred to her son as a “glass half-empty” kind of kid. He’s a kvetch, nothing is ever right for him, he can never see the good side of thingshe’s just a negative sort of kid. And, as a result, I think life is harder for him than it is for his brothers.

But we have complete control over this form of seeing. We can choose how we understand what happens to us. My חֶבְרוּתָא (chevruta, ‘study partner’), Rabbi Ora Simon Schnitzer (Hebrew Seminary, ordained 2010), always says, “You never know what it’s good for”an invitation to look for a hidden bright side in an otherwise negative situation.

In our parashah, when God sets before us a blessing and a curse, perhaps we can understand these as a single entity; there is no inherent blessing or curse, only the way we choose to “see.”