The following was originally posted on Aug. 7, 2018. Rereading this Dvar Torah, three years later, it strikes me how innumerable individual choices still make the difference between whether our lives as a community are like heaven or hell on earth, just as surely as they did when I shared this story last, as they did when I heard the story years before, and as they did when the Torah was given. At the same time, the image of so many people sitting at banquet tables, sharing conversation and food hand to mouth, fills me with both dread and longing in a way I could never have imagined three years ago. Today, as much as ever, we find ourselves facing a future that holds the potential for both blessing and curse. And it may be easier than ever to picture how well-meaning people can drift toward the curse. May we remember, this week, how our many daily small choices, to safeguard and nurture one another or to do what is expedient for ourselves, add up to blessing or curse for all of society. And may we choose life.
I may have been at summer camp the first time I heard the story, attributed to the itinerant Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, of the difference between heaven and hell.
Reb Haim, the story goes, had the opportunity to visit the world to come, and was brought first to see hell. There, he observed banquet tables laden with food, surrounded by people clearly suffering from hunger. On closer inspection he could see that the people held spoons in their hands, but their elbows were splinted open, so they could not reach their mouths. Next, Reb Haim was taken to heaven. Here, too, were banquet tables laden with food, surrounded by people. But these people were satisfied, happily engaged in conversation. He saw that these people, too, had their arms splinted, but as he watched, one person filled a spoon and brought it to the mouth of the person across the table. That person thanked the first and returned the favor. Seeing this, Reb Haim went back to hell, to share the secret of how to eat and end the suffering. The inhabitants of hell, however, replied that they would rather starve than feed people whom they held in such great contempt. I remember feeling amazed that the difference between suffering and satisfaction lay in attitude and cooperation.
If you wonder what heaven and hell are doing in a Jewish story, when Judaism is supposed to be about the here and now, don’t worry. There are a number of Jewish conceptions of an afterlife, including a hell-like realm called gehenom, where souls go to deal with their outstanding sins before entering the ultimate world-to-come. But in reality, I think this story is much more about the here and now.
This week’s parsha, Parshat Re’eh, is part of Moses’ last-minute instructions to the Israelites as they are about to enter the land of Israel. It starts with a short but rich verse: “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” Moses goes on to promise blessing if the people listen to God’s laws, and curse if they ignore them. We might expect what follows to be a description of what the blessings and curses will entail. Instead, we find enumerated some of the laws that will determine the difference between blessing and curse. Most of these laws revolve around serving God, eschewing idolatry, the people’s relationship with food, and concern for all members of the community.
The Israelites, on the precipice of the Promised Land, need to know how to live there, how to establish their new society. Living in this new land will be so unlike their previous lives, as slaves subject to their taskmasters and as a tight-knit clan of wanderers directly dependent on God and Moses, that they will not be able to rely on their own experience. Now they must learn to live in what seems like a whole other world. The land of Israel promises to be a place of prosperity and freedom, where the Israelites will have free will in a sense they have not had in generations. They will have the ability to feel independent of one another, and even of God, and to connect to or disconnect from community. As in the story of heaven and hell, the plentitude of this new world will come with unique challenges, and the rest of the parsha lays out some ways to make sure that the bounty and the freedom are a blessing rather than a curse. The key lies in maintaining a sense of communal responsibility.
The Israelites are instructed that on entering the land, they are to remove all traces of idolatry, and not learn from the ways of the idol worshippers. God will establish a central location for worshiping God, a single place to offer sacrifices. They are to gather there, to include everyone in their community, to rejoice together. They are now, for the first time, permitted to eat meat outside of the sacrificial system. This access to meat even when they are too far to frequent the Holy Temple ensures that when they do sacrifice, it connects them not only to their personal understanding of God, but to the whole community. They are to sanctify the meat they eat, by observing the laws of kashrut, and to sanctify their produce by bringing some portion of it to the Temple at set times to celebrate as a community, and by sharing with those who have less.
That first verse, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse,” contains several words that have fascinated the rabbinic imagination for generations. First “behold” is stated in the singular, while “before you” is stated in plural form. Is Moses speaking to one person, or to all? Also, the word “today” seems superfluous. Finally, the word “set” is more literally translated as “give,” as in a gift. There are numerous resolutions to these mysterious words, but I’d like to bring to the foreground the following. Those of us who are privileged to live a life of prosperity and freedom can use our free will to build a society that is a heaven or a hell on earth. (In reality, it may sometimes be both simultaneously.) Moses addresses us in the plural because the blessing or the curse affects us as a whole society and depends on the actions of society as a whole. He addresses us in the singular because each of us is responsible for our individual free choices, and each of our choices influences society at large. He phrases it as a gift, because the freedom to choose what is right is invaluable. He says “today,” because every day, even today, regardless of what we chose yesterday, it lies within our reach to choose the blessing, to walk in God’s ways, to reject the false idols that tempt us, and to build a just society, a society that cares for each other. The legacy of our Torah, and the privilege of our freedom, demand nothing less.
Rabbi Shira Shazeer is spending the summer on “Shlepn Nakhes,” the Great American Pandemic Road Trip with her husband and three children. She studied in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010 and will complete an additional master’s in Jewish education, with a focus on special education, in the coming year. After many years serving as school rabbi of a small Jewish day school, Rabbi Shazeer is looking forward to new professional adventures in the fall.
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