Reflections – Re’eh

Texts and beliefs By Robert Stone 23rd Aug 2014

There is an anomaly in the Hebrew of the first few verses of Sedra Re’eh, which most translations render, ‘See, I have set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you …’ In the Hebrew, the first word that is translated here as ‘if’ is asher (that) and the second is im (if). So Robert Alter, for example, translates the phrases as ‘the blessing, when you heed …’ and ‘the curse, if you do not heed.’

Nechama Leibowitz cites the explanation of Malbim, ‘“A blessing that you obey,” implies that the very obedience to the Divine commandment constitutes the blessing.’ This echoes the rabbinic dictum that a mitzvah virtue is its own reward. Or, as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it, ‘I slept and dreamt that life was joy. / I woke and saw that life was duty. / I acted and behold, duty was joy.’ Personally, I have never found that totally convincing – perhaps I am not virtuous enough!

So why does that idea apply to the blessing but not to the curse? Why is the mitzvah its own reward but not the bad deed its own punishment? Norma Leibowitz points out that Rashi resolved that anomaly with just two words: his commentary on ‘the blessing when you heed’ is simply al menat, ‘on account of that.’ Leibowitz explains that this refers to a Talmudic legal distinction. Al menat implies retroactive force. Whereas if I say ‘I shall pay you if you perform a certain task’ that constitutes an obligation to pay after the work is done, if I say ‘I shall pay you on account of the work you perform’ that implies an obligation to pay you even before the performance.

So, Leibowitz concludes, ‘the blessing is given to man on account, even before he has proved himself deserving by obedience to the Divine law.’ The world is founded on Divine grace. This bountiful world was granted to humankind for them to enjoy on condition that they would obey the wishes of its Creator, whereas the curse comes only afterwards, in the event of their subsequent disobedience. The world was created as a beautiful place: at the end of the sixth day, God saw all that God had done, ‘and look, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31). The goodness fills the universe and we can ‘taste and see how good is the Eternal’ (Psalm 34:9). The world is not an evil place to be redeemed by our good works. It is, on the contrary, a good place that we can prove ourselves worthy of or that we can spoil through our misdeeds. God creates the world as a blessing – it is for us to maintain or undermine that goodness.

I write ‘us’, but the first word of the Sedra – Re’eh, ‘See’ – is actually in the singular, unlike most of God’s instructions to the Children of Israel. Ibn Ezra commented that this is because the injunction applies to every single person individually. If I, personally, behave well, then the world maintains its goodness; if I do not, it does not. It’s not just that virtue is its own reward – virtue is what preserves the blessing of the world.

Robert Stone is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and Finchley Reform Synagogue and a Trustee of Tzedek.

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