D‘var Torah: Re’eh
Finding, and Following Your North, Rabbi Rami Schwartzer, Founder of the Den Collective in Washington, DC
Finding, and following your North; s tick with it; stay the course.
Much of the ink of Torah has dried over the directive of loyalty to God and Torah. The Torah has already directed us to be careful not to follow the lustful urges of our hearts and eyes (Num. 15:39
), or the practices and ways of other nations (Lev. 18:3). This week we are reminded over an entire chapter to follow God and Torah, but the nature of this command differs subtly from what we have seen before.
Parashat Re’eh presents a Moshe in particular anxiety over the upcoming transition of leadership. Having already advised the people not to turn away towards the idolatry of outsiders or the idolatrous inclinations of our inner urges, he now warns about danger of a more insidious kind: good advice from a reputable or trusted source. “When a prophet or dream-diviner pops up in your midst and gives you a sign or strong evidence…[or] when your sibling – your mother’s own child – or your son or daughter, your own loving partner or your closest friend tempts you in secret, saying ‘come, let us show devotion to other Gods'”… (Deut. 13:2, 7). Turn away, wipe out their very presence from your life. Cancel them.
This chapter is so deeply concerned with neutralizing distractions that Moshe offers six different actions in quick succession as a remedy to this sort of interference: ” Follow only Adonai your God, and revere God; observe God’s commandments, and heed God’s orders; worship God, and cleave to God” (Deut. 13:5-6). These verbs together convey a sense of urgency, a need to act when temptation is greatest. They culminate in a word more unique to this moment: t’dabb’kun, “stick to God” or in Onkelos’s Aramaic, tit’kar’vun: “keep God close [in mind].” Moshe is not worried that we will, in the absence of his steadfast leadership, make the immoral decision to take on the practices of our enemies. He knows we want to do what is right. His concern is not that we will choose the wrong path out of callousness, but that we will forget our path out of spiritual myopia.
The image of Ulysses resonates here: the hero, fundamentally committed to returning home to Ithaca, knew of the Sirens’ power to entice travelers from their course. So he tied himself up and ordered his closest shipmates not to untie him no matter how much he pleads. Parashat Re’eh is Moshe’s plea that Israel tie themselves to the mast of Torah. It is our guidance for how to weather the storm of influence that constantly pulls us from our dreams. This is no doubt what the Hassidic master R’ Yaakov Yosef of Polonne had in mind when he reinterpreted the parashah’s opening verse. He knew it was unnecessary for Moshe to remind Israel not to choose the curse. When God says “I have put before you blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26
), curse is simply the word used for “forgetting your way.” It is called a curse because it is the opposite of a blessing, which is what happens when you remember your values (Toledot Yaakov Yosef, Re’eh 45).
From the youngest to the oldest, never is there an age when we are unencumbered by the burden of discernment: which school, which job, which house; leap or stay where you are. This is all the more real for us in a continuously historic epoch in which inconstancy is our only constant. How do we maintain our focus in the midst of the noise around us? How do we make sure we are on the right path when there are so many doors opening loudly everywhere we turn? Don’t mistake the answer’s simplicity for ease of execution. Walk your path, revere it, observe, heed, and act. Then stick to it, keep your goals close, and don’t let even your most trusted voices lead you astray.