Torah | How our senses guide our choicesby michal kohane
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Summer days in Jerusalem: There are just not enough senses to take it all in. The unique scenery stretches ever which way — the pinkish hills, stone houses, people of every color, clothing of every material and shape imaginable. Then you close your eyes, and the sounds engulf you — honks, shouts, laughs, music, conversations, prayers in every language and the wind in the trees, just before dawn.
It’s been told that Helen Keller was asked which of her senses she would rather have if she could choose, hearing or seeing. If chas vechalila (God forbid) we had to choose, which would we opt for?
The Torah, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy, constantly juggles between hearing and seeing. “Hear, oh Israel!” is our famous mantra. The Mishnah, likewise, opens its sections with ta shema, come and listen. On the other hand, the Zohar, the book of mysticism, calls on us to pook chazi, go out and observe, and this week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, or “see”: “See, I set before you today the blessing and the curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). As we will learn, each word in this opening sentence is critical.
Like the other portions in Deuteronomy, this one is packed with many topics, including a repetition and expansion on kosher laws; the obligation to give tzedakah and not forget how we treat those less fortunate; special laws regarding the land of Israel, the pilgrimage festivals and much more. Throughout it all, we’re told to use our senses so we can choose the correct path.
Re’eh, as noted, begins with the Hebrew word for “see,” conjugated in second person singular and the command form: You — look! But immediately after, the pronoun “you” appears in the word lifnechem, “before you,” this time in second person plural. Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, says this interchange comes to teach us that many are like one, and one is like many. What does that mean?
All of the Jewish people are likened to the body of one human being. Each organ in this body has its own importance and uniqueness, but it still can’t function properly without the others. Similarly, each one of us needs another, and all of us need the community to live a full Jewish life. Lifelong seclusion and detachment is not our ideal. Who would we talk, complain, argue, laugh and share with? While taking time off in various ways is welcome, the purpose should be to return to society as a better person rather than staying away forever in a remote cave.
There is one other significant word that hides in the first verse of this week’s portion: “See, I set before you today” (11:26). Lest we say, “I can’t do this,” or “This was given so long ago, it’s outdated and irrelevant,” or “Me, choose? I’ve already done so many transgressions, there is no hope for me.” Therefore the verse says, today. Each day should be new in our eyes to start on the journey, one day at a time.
The back and forth in this one verse among present, past and future, between the one and many, between hearing and seeing, runs throughout Judaism. We have a way of life that is thousands of years old and deeply rooted in its history. Daily prayers mention our forefathers and the Temple of old; we spend time studying our past.
One might think we’re all about ancient history. And yet, in the words of Mark Twain in his essay “Concerning the Jews”: “The Jew … is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind.” We are a forward-looking people. We sing about hatikvah, the hope. We have our feet in the past and the future at the same time!
Helen Keller said she would prefer to hear, because seeing is connected to outward, superficial, materialistic things, while listening is internal, lasting and much less subject to influences.
I’ve always liked this distinction, but despite its validity, the Torah rejects the temptation to “take sides.” Indeed, while our Torah portion begins with a call to see, the next verse immediately states: “The blessing that you may listen … and the curse, if you do not listen…”
Indeed, nothing is either/or. More than anything, the Torah prescribes a way of life that advocates balance and well-being.
Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.
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