The Mind's Eye
Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
In the opening verse of this week's parsha, Moses speaks to the Jewish people and says, "See (re'eh), I have set before you today a blessing and a curse" (Deut. 11:26). The word "re'eh" seems out of place here. Moses is not showing anything to the people; he is merely informing them about the consequences of their actions! Why does the Torah present this information in terms of "seeing," when it would have made more sense to use the idea of "hearing"?
Later in the parsha, the verse instructs us "to do what is good and upright in the eyes of God" (Deut. 12:28). Rashi (quoting the Midrash Sifri) divides this verse into two parts: the word "good" (tov) refers to doing good in the eyes of God, whereas the word "upright" (yashar) refers to acting righteously in the eyes of other people. This is a very puzzling comment. Since the verse itself links both of these qualities ("good" and "upright") to God, how can the Midrash claim that the word "upright" refers to other people? This seems contrary to the literal meaning of the text!
A passage in the Talmud (Brachot 28b) will help us resolve both difficulties:
The students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai came to visit him when he was on his deathbed. They gathered around their teacher and requested a blessing. Rabbi Yochanan replied, "May it be God's will that your fear of Heaven be as great as your fear of people." This unusual blessing surprised the students: "Is that all?" they exclaimed. It would seem that a person's fear of God should be even greater than his fear of people! Rabbi Yochanan responded: "You should know that when a person commits a crime, his first thought is always, 'Did anybody see me?'"
This Talmudic passage provides an insight into the Midrash's division of the verse in Parshat Re'eh. The Torah counsels, "Do what is good and upright in the eyes of God." But how are we to know what is "good" in God's eyes? The seemingly superfluous word "upright" is included in the verse to teach us the following lesson. We do what is good in the eyes of God by imagining what our conduct would be if we were in the presence of important people. Acting righteously, with other people in mind, is a prerequisite to pleasing to the Divine. This interpretation does not contradict the literal meaning of the verse; rather, it teaches us an approach we must take in our daily lives to help ensure that we are doing what is "good in God's eyes."
Now we can understand the use of the word "re'eh" in terms of this idea. The Talmud teaches, "Who is wise? One who sees the future" (Tamid 32a). It is interesting that the Talmud does not attribute wisdom to one who knows the future. Instead, the word "see" is used. This teaches us an important lesson. A person who knows what will happen may not change his behavior - but a person who vividly sees, with his mind's eye, the potential outcome of his actions, may choose to act differently.
(We all know that our time on earth is finite, yet this knowledge of our own mortality rarely spurs us to make positive changes in our lives. However, if we were to see, in our imagination, the actual moment of our death, that frightening vision of stretchers and paramedics would make us aware of our true priorities far more powerfully than mere knowledge!)
This is why Moses uses the word "re'eh" in addressing the Jewish people. Moses does not want the people simply to listen to his words - he wants them to vividly imagine the results of obeying or disobeying them.
May we all be blessed with a dynamic imagination that will lead us to an awareness of God's Presence. May we use our vision to truly see the ramifications of our action, speech and thought so that we can live our lives according to what is good and upright in God's eyes.