By Cantor Sheri Allen
The first word of our upcoming parashah (and also the name of the parashah itself) is Reeh: See, look, behold. “Reeh, Anochi notein lifnaychem hayom, bracha u’klala…” “See this day I set before you blessing and curse.” Notice that we are not commanded to “Shema/hear” G-d’s message, but to “Reeh/see” the choice in front of us.
Now I’m a visual learner, which is why learning a new language has always been challenging for me. I took French in high school, which in hindsight was not the best choice for me, as Hebrew would’ve been much more useful. Whenever we had a test, I dreaded the oral part of the exam. I literally had to close my eyes and visualize the sentence in my head before I wrote down my translation. Even when I was read to as a child, I had to see the words on the page even as I heard them.
But seeing something is very different than envisioning it. Envisioning involves foresight, being able to picture or see something before it becomes reality, and that is what I believe G-d was commanding the Israelites to do. “See this day I set before you blessing and curse.” The text continues, “blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey.” They are not only commanded to envision the choice in front of them, but also the consequences of choosing one path or another.
Even for a visual learner like me, who can often see only what’s right in front of my nose, G-d makes the choice pretty much a no-brainer: Obey or else! Rarely in life are choices as black and white as they appear to be in the Torah. And in today’s world, doing what’s right doesn’t necessarily result in a positive outcome.
In order to make the best possible choices we must try to imagine, to the best of our ability, what the future holds. I suspect that most of us fall into one of three categories: those who can do that; those of us who act more on impulse; and those who overthink things to the point of being unable to make a decision at all! Or perhaps we fall into all three categories, depending on our circumstances. It’s funny: I didn’t even need five minutes to say “yes” when my husband proposed. But ask me to pick out a gallon of ice cream at the grocery store, and I’m there for an hour.
In order to foresee the future, we need neither a fortune teller nor a crystal ball. We simply need to look back with honesty at what we’ve been through and review what we’ve done wrong so we can envision, with the clarity that comes with experience, a better choice. We need to look back in order to move forward. And perhaps that’s why Moses spends so much time and energy doing exactly that: After literally walking the people through the wilderness up to this pivotal moment, he needs to metaphorically take that walk with the next generation, the generation who will continue the journey into Canaan, hoping that they will learn from the mistakes of their elders and be more mindful of what they must do differently in order to stay on the right path.
When we have been led astray, when life treats us unfairly or when we have to deal with profound pain or loss, it can be very hard to look ahead. My brilliant chaplaincy supervisor, Rabbi Mychal Springer, once said, “All change begins with ‘I can hope for something better.’” I believe that all change also begins with “I can envision something better.” And that’s where faith, family and friends come in. Through our faith, through the stories passed down to us, we are reminded that G-d is with us and continues to guide us in ways that we can and cannot see. May we all be blessed with the gift of sight, as well as insight, as we look forward to envisioning the year ahead.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her congregation.