The blessing of hindsight

By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Parashat Re’eh

When people say “Hindsight is 20/20,” what do they mean, exactly? Most of the time, I imagine, we hear this aphorism as a kind of verbal shrug. What good is it to look critically upon ourselves with the expectation that we could have anticipated something that we hadn’t yet experienced? Still, I wonder if, when we say this or hear others say it to us, we’re dismissing a critical moment of transformational insight.

Our parasha this week, Re’eh, begins with one of the Torah’s most haunting prescriptions — “See, I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God…and curse, if you do not.” We can hear in Moses’ tone both his insistence that the laws God has set out for us are easy to follow and also his prophetic certainty that we will fail to obey them. Indeed, the whole of the book of Deuteronomy seems to echo this pessimistic view as Moses eventually calls heaven and earth to witness against our sins against God in every future generation.

But we need not receive this message as a kind of doomsday prognostication. No doubt, what we can also discern in Moses’ final speech to the Israelites is not a looking forward, but a looking back. As Moses reflects on his life’s work, his voice swells with conflicting emotions — pain and pride, longing and fulfillment, hope and fear. These are the essential touchpoints of cheshbon hanefesh, a true accounting of the soul. And it is through this process that Moses both comes to realize the ways in which he has fallen short as a leader and also understands what the next leader of Israel must do to avoid his mistakes.

As we rush through the days and weeks until our own accounting comes due, we too may feel torn between these poles of blessing and curse. We may look back at ourselves and shake our heads and wonder, “What were we thinking?” Should we have known better? Could we have known better? But focusing on these questions misses the point of the exercise. Even if we should have or could have, we didn’t.

That we can see more clearly now, however, which path we should have taken, is a sign that we have taken the obligation and opportunity of self-reflection seriously. It matters just as much, perhaps even more, that when we look behind us, we can see more clearly than we did when these two divergent paths lay in front of us.

In his masterwork, “The Duties of the Heart,” Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, a medieval Spanish philosopher, describes 10 gates we must pass through in order to cleave to God. The 10th gate, the pinnacle of this journey, is the Gate of Love of God. His description of passing through this gate is both stunningly beautiful and surprisingly familiar — a sensation we have all experienced before. “When the light of the intellect,” he writes, “dawns upon [the soul] and reveals to it the lowness of that to which it had turned…and been drawn in its fancies while neglecting the source of its salvation…it will then desist from this [course] and…its eyes will be opened and its vision will be cleared.”

For ibn Paquda, the ability to choose between blessing and curse was neither instinctual nor instantaneous. It was the product of a years-long endeavor, most of which was spent wandering the gray zone between right and wrong. Ultimately, learning, faith and life experience parted the clouds above his head; the sublime realization that God had opened up his mind to a loving truth overcame him. No doubt, at that moment, he was not looking upward, but smiling over his shoulder at the curses behind him — as the blessings in front of him came, at last, into focus.

Rabbi Adam Roffman has served at Congregation Shearith Israel since 2013. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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