Parashat Re’eh 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

Did you know that when we are awake, our brain generates 23 watts of energy, enough energy to light up a room? And that by simply opening our eyes, 75 percent of our brains’ energy is activated?

Perhaps that is why this week’s parasha opens with the Hebrew word “Re’eh,” which means “see”. The Torah wants us to really use our brains! Yet those of us who pride ourselves on our ability to see ahead might have a particularly difficult time with the approach the Torah takes this week with respect to worship in the Land of Israel.

We read numerous descriptions of the sacrifices and offerings that will be made when the Israelites reach the Promised Land, but strangely, we are not told where the holy place to offer those sacrifices will be. We are told instead, no less than 12 times, that we will offer sacrifices “ba-makom asher yivhar Adonai…”, “in the place that the Lord your God will choose…” We are to make a thank-you-God offering of the firstlings of our flock “in the place that G-d will choose”: We are to celebrate three festivals a year in “the place that G-d will choose”; ……..

Why doesn’t G-d simply tell the people where that place is? Surely, G-d already knows!

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, offers three reasons why G-d does not reveal to the people the place that He has chosen. First, so that the nations of the world will not try to seize and fortify that place before the Jewish people get there, knowing what its significance will be in our religious life. This would make “that place” all the more difficult to conquer. Second, whoever had possession of Jerusalem at the time might be tempted to devastate it and the land around it, making it more difficult to inhabit. Third, and perhaps most likely, if the Israelites knew the location of “the place” they would struggle to have that place included in the area of their tribal inheritance, so as to rule over it. This might result in strife, controversy, and even civil war. Better to leave the location of “the place” vague until King David can unite the tribes and choose Jerusalem as the place.

This reminds me of another well-known story, this one at the beginning of our journey as a people. G-d tells Abraham to go forth from the land of his birth, “to the place that I will show you.” Although G-d knows that place, here too, G-d chooses to keep it to G-d’s-self.

Clearly, there is a “Trust-me” factor in both stories. Abraham must trust that G-d will lead him to a land where he can flourish. The Israelites must also trust that one of the most important aspects of their new lives – where the central place of worship is to be located – will be made known to them only in the due course of time.

Thus, the title of this Torah portion, Re’eh — “See” — refers to a lesson about stepping into an unknown future, with only a partial vision of what lies ahead and much yet that is to be revealed. Our parasha begins by assuring us that if we follow in G-d’s way and live our lives according to Jewish values we will be blessed. Conversely, if we do not live our lives according to Jewish values, we will be cursed. But that does not seem to be exactly how the world works. As we know, misfortune, even tragedy, often touches the righteous. And, as our Psalms attest, the wicked often seem to flourish!

Living according to Jewish values surely brings blessings to our lives in and of itself. But it does not assure that nothing bad will ever happen to us. When and if those misfortunes occur, it is good to remember the words of wisdom of John Wooden, legendary basketball coach of UCLA who led the Bruins to 10 national collegiate basketball championships. Wooden said, “Things work out best for the people who make the best of how things work out.”

This Sunday begins the month of Elul. Elul is a time of spiritual preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe. In preparation for the High Holidays we look back at the past year and consider what lies ahead. Of course we all hope that the year ahead will bring much blessing and success, not unforeseen trouble and hardship. But should we need to confront something that we didn’t see coming, may we all make the best of how things work out.

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis