Rabbi David Walk
Okay, so let's say that you've come from alien culture, and you're told that the best thing to eat in the morning is cereal. You're given money and left off at the local supermarket. Now, go pick a cereal. Well, hot or cold, whole grain or processed, sweetened or natural flavor, brand name brands or generic, cute mascots or business-like labeling? The cereal choices in this thirty or so meters of four levelled shelving runs into the hundreds options. OMG, how is one to select? Trial and error would take months of experimentation. A decision that takes a veteran shopper a few seconds would take this novice a very long time indeed. This new comer to the plethora of modern shopping variety would quickly be overwhelmed without guidance. I think that the same thing is true of life. We are always making choices. The problem, as I see it, is that as we busily go about our daily routines, we often don't notice that we have choices. We buy the cereal we bought last week, and last year. Many of us can go through entire days without noticing that we've made a decision, because the majority of us just do what we did yesterday. Same wake up time, same breakfast, same route to work and back, etc., etc., etc. I didn't mention praying, but the same rule applies. Generally, if I prayed (and went to a minyan) yesterday; I'll do the same today, and if not, not. This week's Torah reading tells us to think like the newbie in the cereal aisle all the time.
Moshe begins this last book of the Torah with a lot criticism of the Jews based upon incidents during the forty year sojourn in the wilderness. However, with our parsha, he changes up the tone and starts cataloguing the mitzvot they will need after settling in Israel. He begins this long (chapters 11-26) spiritual to-do list for the Holy Land with the words, 'Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 11:26-28),' and Moshe wraps it up with, 'Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil...therefore, you should choose life (28:15 & 19).' The Hebrew for the word translated as 'behold' is re'eh, that's the name of our parsha and really means 'see' (ya know like 'O, say can you see?'), but here it might be best rendered as 'notice.' Moshe wants Jews throughout history to remain constantly aware of the fact that we must make conscious decisions all the time and not somnambulate (that's sleep-walk) our way through life. Judaism can only survive if we few members of the tribe continually opt in to this way of life.
I'm explaining the term re'eh as 'bear in mind', but there are those who take the expression literally. And what are we supposed to look at? The Kli Yakar suggests that this declaration was referring to the great covenantal assembly which would take place in Shechem after the Jews crossed over the Jordan into Israel. That ceremony is mentioned here and described in great length in chapter 27. There, they would see the two mountains, Har Gerizim and Har Eival, one verdant and blessed, the other barren and cursed. So, at that moment in time, one could clearly 'see' the reality of the choice. But there's a problem in the text (isn't there always?). The verse begins with re'eh ('see') which is the singular imperative form, and continues with lifneichem which means 'before you', but that word is in the plural. Why does the text seem to flip from talking to an individual to addressing a crowd? I believe the resolution to the problem is that even at that awesome moment in Shechem, only certain select parties got it. Most people just don't want to think about making choices. It's part of the yetzer hara's (evil inclination or, if you prefer, the devil) strategy to keep people rushing headlong through life without considering all the options and opportunities life presents us with. Without considering our actions, the odds of nasty behavior become much more likely.
So, what do we say to the vast majority of people who dash through life like a sprint rather than a marathon? Tell them: Stop, look around, (because) here it comes!! Thanks to the Rolling Stones and growing up in the 60's. But what's coming isn't necessarily a nervous breakdown, but a choice between right and wrong. If you'll only stop and look for it.
And, what do we say to those yechudei segula (rare and precious individuals) who do notice (roeh)? I think we say: Weigh the situations you encounter very carefully. Moshe (and the Torah) make it sound like the choices are very simple. That's not always true. For Moshe the choices were simple, sadly not for us. So, apparent simplicity can also be an ally of the yetzer hara. Black and white tends to only exist in old movies. Most life situations come in Technicolor, making choices difficult. So, carefully choose your alternatives. A lot of bad choices can come from poor analysis of the situation. Remember at Shechem, Moshe made the Jews aware that the choices of right and wrong would come from God's Torah. Our tradition and your trusted mentors will help in the decision making process, but ultimately everyone is on their own.
It's a breakfast cereal aisle out there! Some days you'll choose the 'super healthy good for you' brand, and some days, the sugary junk. But listen to Moshe: notice that you have options and then own the choices you make. It's so very easy to drift through life on the currents of your society or of your past, but don't give in to that urge. Stop, look around and see that the opportunity for greatness is coming.