With the start of Shabbat will come the start of Ellul - our month of preparation for the Chagim to come.
One of my friends, a fellow rabbinical student, shared that her hyper-literalism with Jewish texts and tefillah goes into overdrive around this time of year and her fear of judgement and mortality becomes overwhelming. I wish I had a fraction of her deep and real feeling of the weightiness of this time of year (although it does sound exhausting). It can be so easy to get distracted with how we’ll fit work around the chagim, what we’ll cook (and this year for the first time, what I’ll write sermons on).
The start of this week’s parasha, Re’eh, literally “see”, adds to the high drama of this time of year:
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God יהוה that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of your God יהוה, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”
Two paths lie before us, one with mitzvot and brachot, the other with “turning away” and curses. Pretty charif (spicy) words.
The commentator Seforno adds to my troubled feelings, saying that the word רְאֵ֗ה “see” is meant to encourage us to “pay good attention”. And what we should be paying attention to is “not following the custom of the majority who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground”. Seforno wants us to pay attention to the fact that God is giving us “the choice of two extremes, opposites.”
I’ve always loved middle ground - seeing the nuances and the greys, the antithesis to every thesis, the blurriness of reality. What do I do with this Seforno? Can a softer aspect be found in our parasha?
The answer of course, is yes. There are “seventy faces” to the Torah and there is a unique Torah that speaks to each of us.
At this juncture, I invite you to listen to this beautiful 15 minute meditation on the parasha from the Torah teacher and therapist Rachel Anisfeld (and if you like it, she runs them weekly on zoom). Rachel encourages us to look at the same “re’eh” root found not at the beginning but at the end of the parasha: “שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כׇל־זְכוּרְךָ אֶת־פְּנֵי יְהֹוָה”. Usually translated as: “Three times a year all your males shall appear in the presence of God”, the bold words could also be translated as “will be seen by the face of God”
(If you’re distracted by the “males” part, well yes. Although a wider look does see pilgrimage to the Temple as highly inclusive: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the convert, the orphan, and the widow in your communities” (Devarim 16:14)).
So our parasha is not only concerned with the imperative to “see” (Pay attention! Make weighty choices!) but also with “being seen” - simply being present and allowing God to see us in our fullness. I encourage you to listen to Rachel’s meditation for a stunning unpacking of this theme, from Hagar and Hannah to the Mishna.
But rest assured that if, like me, you are approaching Ellul with ambivalence about feeling the right feelings and making the big decisions, there is a place for you. All you need to do, for now as we enter Ellul, is show up, be seen by God in your fullness, and the rest will follow.