Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The American national anthem begins with the words 'O, say can you see?'  Francis Scott Key was inspired by the sight of the stars and stripes still flying over Fort McHenry after the devastating English bombardment of that stronghold in Baltimore Harbor, and wanted to share the experience with future generations.   But what you see depends mostly on what you're looking for.  Mr. Key, at that moment of inspiration, wanted us to see that our experiment in representative government had survived a harsh test.  In this week's Torah reading Moshe wants us to see something which is just as inspiring but a bit more difficult to discern.  Our greatest teacher wanted us to notice that everyday is filled with choices between good and evil, between blessing and curse.  But how are we to focus on the challenge?  How are we to consistently choose wisely?

            The text gives some immediate advice:  See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is if you listen…The curse is if you don't listen (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).  What are we to listen to?  The mitzvoth!  In the second paragraph of Shema we begin by saying:  And it will be if you listen to the mitzvoth (11:13), that's when good stuff will happen.  What are the mitzvoth saying?  The mitzvoth are crying out to us to listen to God and follow Divine instruction.  The problem is we can't hear it.  That's because we don't pay attention.   We do mitzvoth by rote and habit, not with conviction and inspiration.   When we do mitzvoth with focus and concentration we can hear their message.  And that's the beginning of the spiritual process.  The first chapters of Deuteronomy are filled with instructions to listen, the most famous is Shema Yisroel.  Now we're being told to notice, to observe, to see.  The first part of this book is a cautionary history about the mistakes of the previous generation.  The past must be listened to.  The central part of this final speech of Moshe is mostly mitzvoth which will be performed upon entry into Israel.  The future is about sight.  Look where you're going.

            There are a number of issues which this power of sight must help us to discern.  I want to point out three of them.  The first was noted by Reb Ovadia S'forno (c. 1475-1550).  He observed that the choice is between blessing and curse, good and bad.  That means that every individual choice is black and white.  There is no middle ground on the level of the myriad of micro choices we're making all the time.  Each decision is one of right or wrong.  We should slow down to make the correct choice in all these decisions.  There is always a best answer, but we make so many decisions so often that we end up in a gray area of moral mediocrity, because we didn't stop to consider carefully the best choice when the issue reared its head. 

            The next idea I want to point out was said by the Sfat Emet (Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905, second Rebbe of Ger) in 1874.  The verse says that God sets this choice before us everyday.  The Rebbe explains that this is the greatest gift.  Each day a new menu of choices comes up on the screen.  No matter how many bad decisions were made yesterday, today is a new day.  That's what we mean when we say in our morning prayers that God in sublime goodness renews the creation every single day.  When the Midrash (Genesis Raba 67) tells us that the wicked are hostage to their hearts while the righteous control their hearts, that's only that day.  By tomorrow we're all back in business.  What a gift!

            The third idea was presented by the Chidushei Harim (Reb Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1799-1866, the first Rebbe of Ger).  He suggested that God set within every Jew the ability to discern between blessing and curse, and then instructed us to only choose the good.  He goes on to suggest that this is the purpose of the daily blessing to God for giving intellectual ability to the 'sechvi' to distinguish between night and day.  Over the years many have translated 'sechvi' as the rooster crowing with the dawn, but the Chidushei Harim insists that it refers to the Jew.  We are able to distinguish between light and dark, which really represent good and evil.  This talent is necessary for spiritual growth.

            When the Sfat Emet informed us that this decision making challenge faces us daily, he made the analogy to a fork in the road.  While Yogi Berra famously advised 'take it', we must stop and decide which is the proper course.  When the problem is expressed in this idiom, it suggests that the decision isn't as clear as we've previously proposed.  So, in 1879, the Rebbe put forward the concept that Torah is the road map.  The Talmud (Sotah 21a) tells us that when a person carries a torch there will not be a concern when a crossroads is reached.  The torch will show the way, and we know that the torch is the combination of Torah and mitzvoth, as the verse in Proverbs (6:23) declares that the mitzvah is a torch and the Torah is the flame.  This combo informs our lives and guides our steps.  Now we understand why Moshe began the section of Deuteronomy which presents the mitzvoth our nation will require in Israel, with this dictum to choose the right path, because it's only with Torah and mitzvoth that we can choose intelligently.

            But here's the catch:  each day presents new and unexpected dangers.  As the Portuguese author Paul Coelho said, 'You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It's just a matter of paying attention to this miracle.'  Our problem is that it's hard to keep focused on the miracle each day presents, and we get lost because, sadly, too many of us left our map, the Torah, back in school.







You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com