Gratitude During Challenging Times

Re'eh By :  Malka Strasberg Edinger Adjunct Lecturer in Bible, JTS Posted On Aug 14, 2020 / 5780 | Main Commentary
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This week’s parashah begins with the verseרְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה ׃ / “Behold, I set before you today blessings and curses” (Deut. 11:26). Within the context of the biblical narrative, this verse refers to a choice given to the Israelites upon entering the Promised Land: they could either choose to follow God’s commandments and reap rewards, or not to follow God’s commandments and suffer negative consequences. The blessings and curses set before the Israelites are enumerated in Deuteronomy 27–28, and were read publicly upon entering the Land, as recounted in Joshua 8:30–35.

But what can this verse mean to us today, in the twenty-first century, when we are no longer standing on the border of the Promised Land following a forty-year trek in the desert? If the Bible speaks to people in all times and places, how can we discern the verse’s relevance to our own lives?

I understand the word הַיּוֹם/ “todayin the same way that the Midrash understands the words הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה / “this day” in Exodus 19:1 and Deuteronomy 27:9.

בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי׃

“In the third month since the children of Israel’s leaving the Land of Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai.” (Exod. 19:1)

הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ

“Be silent and hear, O Israel; this day you have become a people of Hashem your God.” (Deut. 27:9)

Why does the Torah use the words “this day” in each of these verses? Exodus 19:1 would read better with the words “on that day,” and Deuteronomy 27:9 doesn’t actually take place on the day the nation entered a covenant with Hashem! In his commentary on each of these verses, Rashi, the preeminent medieval Jewish biblical exegete, references midrashim (cited in Yalkut Shimoni 273 and BT Berakhot 63a, respectively) which present the idea that on any given day that these words are read or heard—meaning on every single day—it should feel as though the event in question (receiving the Torah or entering into a covenant with God) is occurring “today.” Similarly, in our verse in Parashat Re’eh, on any given day that we read these words, we are being told that God is giving us blessings and curses.

In the biblical narrative, בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה (previously translated as “blessings and curses”) refers to a choice between receiving blessings or curses, depending on our behavior. Yet this phrase does not have to be read as a choice. Rather, it can be understood to encompass both: God giving us both blessings and curses at the same time. Life is full of both positives and negatives simultaneously. We all have blessings for which we’re grateful and experience hardships that feel like curses; they co-exist in our lives, and we don’t get to choose only the good or only the bad. 

In this verse, the Torah is directing us toward the realization that both the good and bad in our lives come from God, as is written: אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם / “I am giving you.” Indeed, Jewish practice acknowledges that both the positive and negative in our lives come from God. The Shulhan Arukh, OH 222:1–2, teaches us that upon hearing good news or experiencing something extremely positive, we recite either the blessing Hatov vehametiv / “Who is good and causes good,” or Sheheheyanu / “Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” We also recite a blessing upon hearing bad news or experiencing something extremely negative, that of Dayan ha’emet / “Who is the True Judge.” It is not our place to accept the good that God gives us and reject the bad; we don’t get to pick and choose God’s lot for us. Additionally, we are not to blame God for the negative things we suffer while taking credit for the positive things in our lives; Deuteronomy 8 already warned us against that.

“Beware lest you forget your God . . . and you say in your heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But you shall remember your God, for it is He that gives you power to get wealth . . .” (Deut. 8:11, Deut. 8:17–18)

The first word in our parashah, Re’eh / “See,” charges us to recognize that all of the above are true. The 12th century Spanish biblical exegete Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra notes that the command “re’eh” is written in the singular despite Moshe’s speaking to all the Israelites, because Moshe addressed each individual who was present. We can learn from this that it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to internalize the verse’s message. 

Each of us must recognize that we receive both blessings and curses from God every day. Sometimes it is easy—and during these challenging days of pandemic, perhaps almost unavoidable—to get caught up in the travails of the day and lose sight of the blessings in our lives. It is also easy to take certain privileges for granted and stop being consciously grateful for them. But the opening verse of this week’s parashah enjoins us to recognize and appreciate every good thing with which God blesses us, even at a time when we may be contending with challenges and losses that would have seemed unimaginable a year ago. We are literally instructed to “see” God’s gifts.

May we all strive not to lose sight of our blessings, and in recognizing them every day, merit increased peace and joy in our lives.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).