• Samuel Lebens

Re'eh: On Seeing and Being Seen

Updated: Aug 15

Moses, during the first few readings of Deuteronomy, delivered a moving and personal account of his years leading the Jewish people in the wilderness, alongside words of encouragement and warning. In this week's reading, by contrast, Moses moves into the more legal portions of the book. Most of the laws that appear in Deuteronomy are summaries of commandments we've already read about in earlier books, but some of the laws are new, especially when they relate to the new situation facing the Israelites - namely: moving into the land of Israel, and life after Moses.

This week, we read about the Temple that will one day replace the wandering tabernacle, to be built in "the place that God will choose" - a place which, later on in the Bible, is revealed to be Jerusalem. In the wilderness, it seems that nobody was allowed to eat meat unless it was part of a sacrifice brought in the Tabernacle. But when the people settle in Israel, Moses reports that they will be allowed to eat meat outside of any sacrificial rite. In other words, they won't have to go to Jerusalem every time they want a burger. But, once the Temple is established, even though people will be allowed to eat their burgers wherever they want, they won't be allowed to build altars and slaughter sacrifices wherever they want; all sacrifice is to be restricted to the place that God will choose.

Moses also prepares the people for life after Moses by teaching the laws of the false prophet. Moses imagines a prophet who performs signs and wonders - public miracles - but who also tells us to follow other gods. Moses tells us that this so-called prophet is a test sent from God. We should not heed the words of such a "prophet." In fact, they have committed a capital crime by misrepresenting the will of God.


But come on!


What if the person performs an amazing miracle? Raising the dead, or moving mountains! Surely that would mean something? No. We don't believe that something is true just because the person who says it can do a magic trick!


Don't get me wrong. The halakha does recognize the significance of miracles. It bestows the defeasible legal status of “prophet” upon a person who performs a sign or a wonder. A prophet should be obeyed. But this is a legal function given to a miracle; it doesn’t mean that that miracle, in and of itself, is evidence that the miracle-worker is speaking the truth. And this is the point that Moses wants to make: if the person who does big miracles goes on to say something demonstrably false, then we know that they’re not a prophet after all, whatever magic tricks they were able to pull off. That’s why the status of “prophet” bestowed in virtue of a miracle, is defeasible. It can be rescinded. If a person tells us something false, or tells us to follow an other god, then the miracles mean nothing. Indeed, Moses warned us that such a thing might happen. But then again, why should we believe Moses? Surely not because of the miracles that he wrought! No, we believe in Moses not because of anything that he said or did, but because of our collective experience, as a people, at Sinai. As Maimonides puts it:

What is the source of our faith in [Moses]? The standing at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. The fire, the thunder, the lightning. [Moses] entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard [it say], “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following . . . ”

Likewise, Rabbi Yoseph Albo argues that the whole intention of the Sinai experience was to demonstrate to the Jewish people that Moses was a prophet in the most direct way, by allowing the entire nation to hear God talking to him. Consequently, the Jewish people had “a direct proof that Moses was a divine messenger through whom a perpetual law was to be given”. That law recognizes the role of prophets. It bestows a defeasible prophetic status upon miracle workers. Nevertheless, their entire authority, as prophets, stems not from the fact that they can do miracles, but from the Torah, whose authority comes from the experience had by the entire nation at Sinai.


Having discussed animal sacrifices and meat-eating, at the start of the reading, and after this digression into false prophets, Moses summarises the laws of kosher and unkosher animals, which were first presented in the book of Leviticus. He summarises the taxation and tithing policies that will look after the needs of the poor and keep the Temple in service. The reading concludes with the laws of the three "foot" festivals - Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) - upon which the Jewish people are commanded to conduct a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.


The final topic of the reading takes us back to its opening words. At the end of this week's reading, as Moses describes the three "foot" festivals, he says:

Three times a year all of your male folk shall be seen [Hebrew: יראה] before the Lord your God, in the place that he shall choose: on the festival of unleavened bread, on the festival of Shavuot, and on the festival of Sukkot. And they shall not be seen [Hebrew: ולא יראה] empty-handed.

These words take us back to the opening words of our reading, in which Moses seems to give us a choice. We could view the laws that he is giving us either as a blessing (if we keep them), or a curse (if we don't):

See [Hebrew: ראה], this day I set before you [a] blessing and [a] curse.

In other words, the whole reading this week is framed in terms of seeing [ראה] and being seen [יראה]; how we see the commandments, and being seen three times a year in the Temple.

The location of the Temple turns out to be the very mountain top upon which Abraham bound Isaac. The fact that the Temple Mountain in Jerusalem is actually a mountain is obscured by the giant retaining walls, which were filled in so as to render the Temple Mount a large flat surface. But it was a mountain. At the end of the binding of Isaac, Abraham named it. He called it, “Hashem Yir’eh”, meaning, “God will be seen.” But, as we've just read, we're not commanded to go there to see God. On the contrary, we are commanded to go there so as to be seen.


If there was ever a mountain upon which God was seen, it would have to be Mount Sinai. It was there that Moses saw “the back” of God. It was there that the Jewish people had such a vivid experience of God that they were supposed to be forever inoculated against the most impressive prophets of falsehood.


But even there, God wasn’t really seen, since, “no man can see Me and live.” God is seen nowhere and to the extent that he was seen anywhere, it wasn’t on the Temple Mount. And yet: this week's reading clearly harks back to Abraham. It commands us “to be seen” on the Temple Mount. It's as if Moses is correcting Abraham. It's not that God will be seen there. Rather, God will see us there.


On the other hand, the sort of seeing that we're talking about here isn't straightforward.


God told Abraham to offer Isaac up upon "one of the mountains, [the one] which I will tell you." But, seemingly, God didn't tell him. Abraham simply "sees from afar" the mountain upon which he was supposedly commanded to sacrifice his son. But, what did Abraham actually see? The Midrash says:

He said to Isaac: My son, do you see what I see? He replied: Yes. He said to the two lads [in his travelling party]: Do you see what I see? They replied: No. He said to them: Since the donkey doesn’t see, and you don’t see, you two "stay here with the donkey" (Genesis 22:5)!

There was nothing in particular to see. It was just one dusty mountain among many. But what Abraham could see was something like the potential that that mountain had to become a meeting place between man and God. He could see not just what the mountain was, but what it could become. The donkey is a symbol for materialism. The Hebrew word for donkey [חמור] shares its root with the word for materialism [חומרנות]. Abraham tells his travelling party to stay with the donkey because, unlike him and Isaac, they cannot see beyond the material reality.


In this week's reading, Moses invites the Jewish people to see that Jewish law is both a blessing and a curse. You can relate to it as a burden, or, you can relate to it as a blessing. Jewish eyes look at a pair of Shabbat candles and see not just two cylindrical towers of wax, but the glowing sanctity of Shabbat; they look at Tefillin (phylacteries) and see, not just dead cows, but a means with which to bind yourself to the living word of God.


Thousands of years after the Exodus, and after two thousand years of exile, the descendants of Abraham continue to exist. They continue to have their distinctive customs. They continue to pass on their distinctive identity, most centrally, at the Seder night, which the vast majority of affiliating Jews continue to celebrate, irrespective of their general level of religious observance. 

The survival of an identity through such trials and tribulations is unparallelled in human history. To see the Jewish people gathering in their holy places, on their holy days, against all odds, is really to see the hand of God. And thus Abraham was right. Where the Jewish people are seen to be Jewish, in their Temples, their synagogues and their homes, one will see, if only one uses the right sort of eyes, the presence of the Lord. Because we are seen to congregate in the Temple, God is seen there too. Indeed, if you have witnessed the collective survival of the Jewish people, and yet you complain that you've never seen God, then Moses and Abraham might tell you that you haven't been looking right.


One Midrash on this week's parsha might be viewed as anoter lesson in how to see. The Midrash starts with a verse from the book of psalms:

Let me exult and rejoice in your loving-kindness when you notice my affliction, are mindful of my deep distress, and do not hand me over to my enemy, but grant me relief.

These words were first spoken by King David. Indeed, this psalm was explicitly attributed to King David. Nevertheless, the Rabbis are keen to attribute this particular verse to Joseph. They say:

Joseph said, "Master of the universe, let me exult and rejoice in your loving-kindness that you have done for me. Had you [only] called Potiphar's wife to account for me, but not given me the powers of a sovereign, I would have been joyful and happy, [but] now that you've also given me the powers of a sovereign, I will exult and rejoice in your loving-kindness. "When you notice my affliction", this [too] refers to Joseph, about whom it is written, "His feet were afflicted in fetters; an iron collar was put on his neck" (psalms 105:18). [And when the verse says that God] did not hand me over to my enemy - it [refers to] Potiphar [who sought to imprison Joseph for life]. [Finally, when the verse says], but grant me relief, [Joseph refers to the fact] "that [God] caused me to rule over the entire land of Egypt." From where is this derived? From the verse: "Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land..." (Genesis 42:6).

This is actually a hobby of the authors of Midrash. They love to take a verse from one context and place it in the mouth of a character in a completely different context. These words were said by David, but they may as well have been said by Joseph. The Midrash continues with an alternative attribution, according to which this verse was spoken not by David, nor by Joseph, but by the Jewish people collectively:

The Children of Israel said, "Master of the universe, let me exult and rejoice in your loving-kindness that you have done unto us, for had you [only] freed us from the Egyptians and not given us their money, we would have been gladdened, [but] what joy and happiness we have [now] that you have given us [also] their wealth!" When you notice my affliction - this refers to the Israelites about whom it was written: "The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our affliction, our misery, and our oppression" (Deuteronomy 26:6-7). are mindful of my deep distress - this refers to the Israelites, about whom it is written "they made life bitter for them" (Exodus 1:14). and do not hand me over to my enemy - this refers to the evil Pharaoh, as it is written "The foe said, “I will pursue"" (Exodus 15:9). but grant me relief, "that you widened our borders", as it says [in this week's Torah reading] "when [the Lord] enlarges [your territory]" (Deuteronomy 20:12).

As with every Midrash, we could discover many hidden riches if we were to spend enough time engaging in a literary analysis of this text. But there's pretty general point I want to make about this Midrash; a point that ties us back into our theme: how to look at things.


If we look at the Torah as a history book, we miss its most important points. This Midrash, for example, looks at Joseph as an archetype for a certain type of life, a type of life that was equally expressed in the narrative arch of the Jewish people's journey from slavery to sovereignty; and equally expressed in the words of King David. If we view the words of David as belonging to one person, and the biography of Joseph as belonging to another person, and if we look at the story of the Exodus as just one historical narrative, then we entirely miss the more important fact that, to quote Yehuda Gellman:

We all have an Adam and Eve inside of us, defying God and then exiled. We are all Abraham, called to leave our natural state and to go to a faraway place where we will be blessed. We all have a Moses and a Pharaoh within us, confronting one another time and again, until the time of personal redemption from the narrow confines of self-absorption. We each have within us the capacity to stand at Sinai and receive the Torah anew.

If we view the Torah, reductively, as a history book, then we will not see how the prison of Joseph was, in some sense or other, the very same place as the slavery of the Israelites, and how Joseph's personal rise to power was a portent of things to come. In the words of the Zohar:

Rabbi Shimon said: Woe to the person who says that the Torah comes to tell commonplace stories and the words of ordinary people... Rather, all the words of the Torah are supernal matters and supreme secrets... The Torah story is the clothing of the Torah. A person who thinks that the clothing is the Torah itself and there is nothing more, will be destroyed and not merit the World to Come... The fools look only at the clothing, which are the stories in the Torah... But the wise, servants of the supreme king that stood at Sinai, they look only at the soul, which is the most important of all. In time to Come, they will see the soul of the soul.

When a Midrash takes the words of one person in the Bible, and places them in the mouth of another, and superimposes the narrative arch of one person's story onto the story of others, the Rabbis are teaching us how to look at the Torah and how to see its soul. Rather than standing with the donkeys at the bottom of the mountain, the Rabbis invite us to gaze upon the soul of the soul of the Torah.

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