The majestic opening words of this week’s Torah portion have been read by Jews throughout the ages as a call to deep reflection on our lives, both as individuals and as a community.
They also contain a grammatical ambiguity that has engaged Torah scholars for many centuries. For those who believe that the Torah is divinely given, the slightest irregularity of language invites exploration, for in a sacred text, wisdom can be found even in a minute turn of phrase.
The portion begins: “See: This day I place before you blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26). The following verses define “blessing” as faithfulness to the mitzvot and “curse” as turning away from God’s commands. But the commentators notice that the first sentence begins in the first person imperative, “Re’eh” (“See!”) and then immediately shifts to the second person plural, “lifneichem,” “before you.”
The scholars draw many implications from this peculiarity of language. The Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720-1797) finds in each word of this verse a penetrating spiritual instruction, exactly what we need to hear as we move into the holiday season:
“See” (in first person imperative form). “A person must not say, ‘What difference would it make if I, an individual, were to choose a good path, when the rest of the world behaves badly?’ Therefore the verse speaks in the first person, as if to say, ‘See what is before you. Do what is yours to do, and don’t worry about the rest of the world.’”
“I” (God, the next word in the Hebrew verse). “A person must not say, ‘How can I stand up against my own evil inclination and its schemes?’ For God will be there to help and support you.”
“Place” (or “give,” in the present tense). “It does not say, ‘I placed before you’ (past tense). A person should not think that if she had once chosen a bad path, there is no way to recover from that choice. Therefore the Torah says ‘place,’ in the present tense, that is, you always have a choice to select the path of goodness. Till the day of your death God will wait for your teshuvah/repentance, and if you return, God will take you back.”
“Before you” (second person plural). “If one says to oneself, ‘How can I know which is the path of goodness and which is the path of evil? It is all concealed (unknown)!’ The verse comes to say ‘before you’ (plural): look closely and discern, hear and see with a perceptive eye, how the story of our people has unfolded, and all will be clear to you.”
“Today.” “Lest a person say, ‘What hope is there for me? I am riddled with sin. What can I do with the misdeeds I have committed until now?’ The verse comes to say, ‘Today.’ Let every day be new for you, and you can begin again, for one who does teshuvah/repentance becomes as one reborn.” (Cited in A. Y. Greenberg, Itturei Torah, volume 6, p. 81)
The Gaon tells us that all of the essential truths that we need as we approach the Aug. 21 start of Elul, the month that begins the High Holy Day season, are to be found in the seven Hebrew words of this verse. We can recognize every spiritual mistake that the verse bids us to avoid.
Does it seem that your own spiritual work would make no difference in the midst of a nation and a world gone mad? See: your responsibility is to do the work that is yours to do as well as you can.
Do you ever feel that your negative patterns are so hopelessly ingrained that you can never change? Believe that God/the Holy/Truth can bring you to healing and change.
Do you have trouble forgiving yourself for past wrongs? You can always begin again.
Do you wonder how to find truth in the midst of a hopelessly complex life? Turn to the history of our people. Do you doubt whether change is really possible? Recite one word, a word that is repeated many times in the High Holy Day prayers, “today.” Today you can make good choices. Today you can chart a different course for your life. No matter what has come before, today you can be the person you were created to be.
May the holiday season bring us rich opportunities to refresh and reorient our lives, and bring us closer to the Holy and to one another. Amen.