Today my office shut down so the staff (some of whom are Jewish and some who are not) could go out into the community to engage in various forms of community service – and perform Mitzvot (good deeds) – that benefit others. Since I work for a Jewish organization, it may not seem like a big deal that we do this every year, but not every Jewish institution does so as a collective. I personally am happy that we practice what we preach.
As part of the morning briefing and kickoff to our Mitzvah Day, I was asked to offer the Dvar Torah – a brief lesson and words of Torah to establish the proper tone and mindset for the day. Now, while I was honored to have been given this opportunity, I haven’t exactly perfected the required skills. After all, preparing a Dvar Torah involves reading the weekly Torah portion; trying to decipher its meaning; researching the opinions of educated commentators on lessons to be learned; and translating it all into a concise, coherent, and relevant message for a specific audience – in this case, my colleagues. It’s like writing and delivering (i.e. “selling”) a mini sermon, which is not something I do with any regularity.
I was relieved to learn that, not only did the weekly Parasha fit my organization’s Mitzvah Day, it was fitting for this week’s blog post as well! The first sentence was all I needed to kick-start the topic.
רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה
“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
And so begins Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. Re’eh. The Hebrew word for SEE. Why does this chapter of the Bible (the only one of its kind) start this way? More to the point, what does it mean to SEE a blessing and a curse? And, why was my organization’s Mitzvah Day chosen to align with this particular Parasha?
To answer these three questions, I first examined the context and the content of the text. In Re’eh, Moses is lecturing the Israelites. He reminds us of the various blessings that will come to those who obey the Torah – God’s commandments – and warns of the curses that will befall those who don’t. He then lays out general guidelines to follow, including the laws that relate to the prohibition of idolatrous worship; observance of Kashrut (keeping Kosher); avoidance of those with supernatural powers; and the pursuit of the principles of social justice.
So, back to question number One. Why the word Re’eh? In this context, the word “see” is not defined as “to perceive with one’s eyes” or “to view or watch something.” Rather, it is “to comprehend” something (as in “I see what you mean”) or “to consider” something (as in “I see these as viable options”). It is these forms of seeing that establish the basis of free will. How so? The answer leads us to the next question.
What does it mean to SEE a blessing and a curse? We often are presented with options in life where – before we choose which path to take – we must weigh the risks versus the rewards; the pros versus the cons; the causes versus the effects; the means versus the ends. We each have a choice in how we see things and have control over how we respond to them. God wants us to see the options, understand the differences between them, and willingly make good choices – the ones that are in line with Jewish laws and values. And, if we live our lives in these ways, we will be blessed. But, if we don’t…
Finally, question number Three. Why was our Mitzvah Day chosen to align with this particular Parasha? Upon asking my co-workers, I learned that this actual date was a “random pick.” According to one in particular, today just happened to be a day when key staff was available. But I submit to you that this “random pick” actually was beshert – totally meant to be. Why? Because Chapter 15 of Re’eh talks about the general principles of social legislation – how to treat strangers, widows, and orphans – categories of people who, due to circumstances, are in need and worthy of help. Throughout the Bible we are reminded that there are many who are less fortunate than we are. This reality is something that we, at the Jewish Federation, worry about every day. We raise money to help those in need – particularly at-risk and vulnerable populations – here, in Israel, and around the world. This is how we help make the world a better place.
Today, however, instead of just raising and sending money to important not-for-profit service organizations, we rolled up our sleeves and got actively involved in changing people’s lives. Today, we saw the needs; we considered the options; and we made a choice to perform the Mitzvot ourselves. And, we had a good time to boot!
May our collective work on behalf of others – today and every day – be for a blessing.