Parshat Re’eh Saturday Morning 2011

  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. Parshat Re’eh begins by offering us a choice, blessing or curse; a blessing if we observe the Mitzvot and a curse if we do not. This is one of the verses upon which the sages declared the principle of free will. We always have the choice to do the will of God or not, and if we choose not, then we will have to suffer the consequences of our decision.

  1. Of course, if we pause to think about this choice, it really is not much of a choice at all. It is more like “Do what I say …or else…! One would have to be either very foolish or very wicked to choose to disobey God and risk facing the curses, curses that will be described in very gory detail in Parshat Ki Tavo in just a few more weeks. Clearly the Torah is telling us that the wise choice, the only real choice, is to choose to obey the commandments of God.

  1. In the Mishna, in Pirke Avot, the collection of wisdom from the Sages of the Talmud, Ben Zoma, asks a series of very strange questions. He asks “Who is Wise? Who is Strong? Who is Rich? and Who is Honored? The questions are strange because we already know the answers to his questions. The answers are obvious. We all know the definitions of wealth, strength, wisdom and honor. Wise people are those who have many degrees from prestigious universities. They are the people we turn to when we don’t know what we are supposed to do. The strong person is the one who can lift the most weights and has the largest muscles. The rich man is the one who invests with Berkshire Hathaway, and who makes money even in a down market. The one who is honored is the one who gives up his or her life on behalf of others.

  1. What makes the teaching of Ben Zoma so interesting is that he does not answer the questions the way we expect. His definitions of Wisdom, Strength, Wealth and Honor are not at all what we expect, in fact they are virtually the opposite of the definitions we are so sure of. According to Ben Zoma, the wise person is not the one who knows the most; wisdom comes when we are prepared to learn from everyone else. Strength does not come from lifting weights; but real strength comes when we are able to overcome our evil impulses. Wealth is measured not by how much money we control, but how happy we are with what we already have. Honor does not come from others; it comes when we honor others.

  1. When we think about what Ben Zoma is teaching, we realize, of course, that what he says is true in a deeper way than the definitions that we first contemplated. We don’t have to think too hard to find people with many degrees who still act foolishly. How many athletes can we think of who are strong physically but underdeveloped morally. Rich people seem to only want to get more wealth but a poor person, who is happy is wealthier in the ways that really matter. Real honor comes from humility in our public service, not from a sense of getting what we deserve.

  1. What Ben Zoma is really saying is that in each of these four areas, what we first thought of as a blessing, can really be, if we are not careful a curse. If we are too full of ourselves, too enamored of our abilities and believe that we are better than anyone else, then no matter how smart we may be, how strong we may be or how rich we may be, we are, in the end without any resources at all. All that we own is not enough, and it will never be enough if we don’t learn how to control ourselves and our impulses.

  1. We like to think of Wisdom, Strength, Wealth and Honor as the blessings of life, but for all too many people, they are not blessings but a curse. Many smart people were duped by Bernie Madoff. Baseball, football, basketball and even golf have seen star performers fall to sex and drugs. Martha Stewart went to jail because she lied about a stock trade that involved an amount of money that, compared to her vast wealth, was pocket change. She just couldn’t let it go, no matter how insignificant the amount was. We may honor those politicians who have served this country as President of the United States, but that is an insignificant honor compared to the honor we show to people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. They earned their honors by giving honor freely to others.

  1. Clearly, when our Parsha is talking about blessings and curses, it is not giving us the choice of following God or not, it is telling us that everything that we do can be a blessing or a curse, and the final determination is made not by others but through our own actions.

  1. Take the Mitzvot, for example; we can do Mitzvot because we want to feel honored. We like the way our observance makes us feel pious and righteous. We like it when we are honored for our commitment to Judaism and Jewish traditions. Ben Zoma would tell us, however, that this is not the path to true piety. This kind of piety is a kind of curse, and it is why so many people who seem so pious are discovered to be not so pious in the privacy of their own homes. True piety, Ben Zoma would say, comes from a love of God. If we do what God commands because we love what God stands for and want to bring the understanding of God out into the rest of the world; if we act at every moment to bring honor, not to ourselves, but to God, then we won’t need to worry if our public life and our private life are the same. Both are the result of a mind set that makes it impossible to act in a hypocritical manner.

  1. We may be proud that, over the course of our lives, we have never received a traffic citation. not one speeding ticket, not one accident; we never ran a red light. It is not that we never speed or cut corners in traffic, it is just that we are too smart to get caught. We may even be proud that we got a reduction in our car insurance because of our “spotless” record. But the fact that we may have never been caught does not mean that we are a safe driver. In fact, we may be responsible for creating dangers for other drivers who have the misfortune to be in the same intersection with us. Our daredevil driving may be unknown to Law Enforcement but it is still a curse in our lives and in the lives of others. Why should we drive safely? Because it is the right thing to do. It is better for preserving our life and the lives of others.

  1. We may even be proud of our thriftiness. We make very dollar go the full distance for us. We bargain with every sales person, and get reductions even when the sign says that there are no discounts; that we have returned items we don’t need even when it says that there are no returns. We like to brag around the pool that we got a better bargain on the TV, the car, on our eggs and on our produce. But if we are leaving in our wake, angry, frustrated and hurt sales clerks, what have we really accomplished? We may be proud of our savings but we are reviled when we return to the store for all the trouble we have caused. Our actions may be our curse if we leave in our wake people we have bullied into submission. Is saving a few cents worth the anger and resentment we leave behind? True blessings come when everyone leaves a deal happy, not just the buyer.

  1. The sign may say, “The person who dies with the most toys, wins” but it is a false winning. The people who are long remembered are those who are the kindest and most compassionate. I have done thousands of funerals but at the top of my memory is the funeral of the father who left this memory to his children. They told me that one day the father saw a homeless man who had no shoes. He stopped his car, and asked the man to tell him his shoe size. The man told him he was a size nine. The father turned to the children in the car and said, “Who here wears a size nine?” and he then took the shoes off the feet of his son to give them to the homeless man. The boy had other sneakers at home. But he never forgot that one act of kindness of his father. And to this day I have never forgotten it either.

  1. If our lives can be a blessing or a curse, it will only be because of the way we act every minute of every day. If we bring blessings into the world, our life will be a blessing. If we work for our own gain at the expense of everyone else, then our lives will be a curse, not just for others but for ourselves too. We will know, deep in our hearts, that we are not anywhere near the kind of person we want to be. Every decision we make will add to the total, whether our life will be a blessing or a curse.

  1. That is not to say that we have to be perfect. Nobody is perfect. Every one of us has slipped from time to time and been a bit selfish, careless and maybe a bit cruel from time to time. We don’t really mean to be that way but there are so many reasons that spoil our best intentions. A momentary bit of greed, an unintentional slight, or a morally questionable decision. Some of these sins may be accidental. Some, we are ashamed to admit, were done with intention. This week, as we begin the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year, we get our chance to repair these sins. Each day of Elul we blow the shofar to remind us that the end of the year is coming and we need to apologize, repent and resolve to do better in the year ahead. This season tells us that we don’t have to be perfect, we only need to try harder to do the right thing and to leave our bad intentions behind.

  1. The blessings and curses in life are of our own making. The choice we have is to do the right things for the right reasons. The Torah gives us the reinforcement we need to overcome our evil inclination and stay on the path that will bring us true wisdom, strength, wealth and honor. We don’t need anything more than Ben Zoma to remind us that all we value can be either a blessing or a curse and it all depends on how we feel about what we are doing and the memories that we are leaving behind.

As we said just a few minutes ago during the prayer for the new month, “May God bless us in this new month with life and peace, joy and gladness, deliverance and consolation and may we have these blessing every day of every month of the year as we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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