Shabbat Shalom. I know it's unbelievable, but public school started over a week ago, Religious School begins this coming week, and the High Holidays are coming up in just over a month. We bless the new month of Elul on this Shabbat because Rosh Chodesh Elul is Sunday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year. It's the time of year for us to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we are headed, where we've been.
We are beginning the yearly journey of getting ready for the chagim, the Jewish fall holidays, examining the choices we continually make and the way our choices have worked out for us in the past year.
The opening lines of this week's parsha, Re'eh, are famously about choice. You can find them in your large blue Plaut Torah commentaries, there in the pews in front of you, on page 1259 at the start of the portion. In that passage, on page 1259, Moses says to us, the people,
Re'eh, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u'klalla.
Et habracha asher tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi m'tzaveh etchem hayom.
V'ha klallah im-lo tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem...
See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.
The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God which I command you today.
And the curse if you don't obey or listen.
Re'ei goes on to talk about turning away from God and the mitzvot, and commands us, when we go into our land, to read this blessing and this curse on top of two different mountains to the whole community assembled there. On the surface, it seems like a simple, powerful restatement of the central message that is repeated all through Devarim: if you do good, you will be blessed; if you do evil, you will be cursed, the Deuteronomic covenant that lies at the heart of the Torah's understanding of ethics.
But commentator Nechama Liebowitz points out that it's not really the case that there are two parallel ifs here, "blessing IF you listen, curse IF you do not," though most translations hide that fact. The Torah uses two different words: it reads "et habracha ASHER tishm'u", "v'haklalla IM-lo tishm'u". That is, the blessing, because you listen, and the curse, if you do not.
In a footnote on Rashi the commentary Torat Chayim summarizes this point as K'tiv haklallah b'lashon tnai, v'habracha b'lashon vedai which translates to "the curse is written in the conditional, and the blessing in the declarative." That is, the blessing of God is definite while the curse is only a possibility.
Liebowitz makes a very interesting point out of this. She says that God actually gives us a line of credit, a mitzvah equity loan if you will, and we can borrow blessing on the speculation that we will likely do mitzvot. It seems like a good deal for us, but not necessarily a good one for God. We can make the assumption that all this blessing borrowing will not cause a sub-prime blessing crisis in the financial markets on high...
In any case, this is a comforting thought; we get blessings on the hope that we will do mitzvot. God rewards us and then hopes—prays?—that we act ethically.
But what if we read this passage a little differently? How about if we translate it,
"I'm setting before you a blessing and a curse,
a blessing because you are with me today listening to the mitzvot of God your Lord that I am sharing with you,
the curse if you don't continue to listen and be linked in community with me and with each other and instead turn off to a path that leads to you not knowing what is holy in your life, possibly not even knowing what is going on..."
This takes the phrase asher tishm'u, "if you listen" and reads it as "because you are already currently listening together with your community." There is support for reading it freely in this way from the Maharam, a 13th-century German commentator, who points to a connection between these lines and Psalm 133, which reads
Ki sham tziva Adonai et habracha, chayim ad-ha-olam.
"Because there, [in the mountains of Zion] God commanded blessing, life eternal."
The commentator connects this passage in Re'ei, in which we are first commanded to pronounce blessing and curse on two different mountains. There God commanded blessing, the Psalm says, and eternal life. And actually, the Psalm completely omits the curse, which is kind of nice. But if you look at the beginning of the Psalm you will also find the famous text Hineh ma tov v'ha'naim shevet achim gam yachad—you know, the one we sing so often at every Jewish event, "How good and lovely it is for family to be all together."
Following that we-are-family beginning, the later sentence in the Psalm Ki sham tziva Adonai et habracha, "because there God commanded blessing, life eternal" means that when family and community come together, when shevet achim gam-yachad, sham, there in that very coming together, that's when God makes a gift of blessings to us. The sharing of mitzvot together is the bracha, the blessing. And that blessing of being together in community, in synagogue, is life at its fullest.
So perhaps we already get blessings just by doing the work as a community to be ready for the chagim, by spending this coming month of Elul looking at our past year and seeking to find new ways to improve our lives and our temple and our community. By coming together to prepare for and celebrate the High Holidays, to share joy, to remember as well that we are fearful and anxious and humble together, that we all long to be blessed and inscribed together in the book of life, and that we are each vulnerable and each flawed, we receive the blessing of life. It is this that in itself is a blessing that we definitely can have just for the asking—or rather, just by showing up and being present. In this interpretation of Re'ei, being together in Jewish community means being inscribed fully in the book of our own lives.
Just as we are enjoined to return and prepare our Teshuvah in this coming month of Elul, so we make Teshuvah and now to that first point of Re'ei: blessing is offered first, while curse is only there in reserve. This is a promise that God is predisposed to favor us, that forgiveness and love are there for us in advance. We only need to look at our own lives and make a sincere, honest effort to find, and be, our best selves.
This can be a model for our own cheshbon hanefesh, the honest scrutiny required as we enter this holiest period of the year. When we look at our lives, the Torah suggests that we have a much kinder friend than we can often be to ourselves in our God. In fact, God's advance affection for us is so practical that the Torah contains messages of forgiveness in advance for the fact that, being human, we will inevitably screw up....
Psalm 27, which traditionally is said every day during the month of Elul, includes the beautiful passage
Horeini Adonai darkecha unecheini b'orach mishor
lulei he'emanti lirot betuv Adonai, b'eretz chayim
"Teach me Your way, God, and lead me in a straight path
Then I believe that I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living."
On this Shabbat of Re'eh, during the coming month of Elul, may we each make the choice to accept God's offered blessings, in community—and may we also work, in goodness, together, to be worthy of them.