Author's Note on Parshat Re’eh
Date: August 14, 2020
24 Menachem Av 5780
I always thought that the traffic ticket for a moving violation was inspired by Jewish sources. Why? Because when you get a ticket you are provided with three choices for a response: innocent, guilty, or (here’s the Jewish part) “guilty with explanation.”
In the Torah portion for Parshat Re’eh we read that G-d has set before us blessings and curses. Blessings come when we follow the law. You would think that the curses come when we do not follow the law – that is, the curse should be the opposite of the blessing. But it is not. Look at the language closely (it is actually even clearer in Hebrew). The articulation of the blessing and curse are identical except for the words in all caps (in the English below) which appear only in the curses:
(v. 26) See/behold, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse.
(v. 27) The blessing will come so that/when you observe the Mitzvot of G‑d, your G‑d, that I am commanding you today.
(v. 28) And the curse will come if/when you do not observe the Mitzvot of G‑d, your G‑d, AND TURN FROM THE PATH that I am commanding you today TO FOLLOW THE GODS OF OTHERS THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW.
This difference in wording is what prompted Rashi to remark that the curse comes about when someone excludes himself from the community, rejects G-d in favor of idols and actually departs from the entire path of life outlined for B’nai Yisrael.
This understanding of the opening lines of Re’eh seems to leave a gap. Consider the traffic ticket. The Torah has set before us a blessing when we follow the law (we are innocent) and a curse when we do not follow the law and follow idolatry (we are guilty). But what about when we don’t follow the law but it is caused by non-idol worship reasons? What if we just make a mistake – what if we are “guilty with explanation”? In other words, yes we are guilty but our explanation is that we want to change and improve.
This level of non-compliance is what we call a “chet”. Chet is not “sin” as we commonly understand the word “sin”. A chet refers to “missing the mark.” Think about shooting an arrow at a target. We try, but we don’t always hit the bull’s eye. Sometimes we even miss the target altogether. We are still in the game, yet we are human and prone to make mistakes. We make a lot of them and we make them for a lot of reasons. It is not that we are rejecting or turning away from our path; we simply “missed the mark.”
Although a chet is not a blessing, neither is it deserving of the consequences of a curse. Instead, correction, or Teshuva, is what we need and what the month of Elul (the upcoming Hebrew month) is all about as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We undo a “chet” not by moving the target closer or making the bull’s eye bigger so it is easier to hit. Rather, we work on our skills and refine our capabilities to become better marksmen.
So if we consider the opening words of Re’eh to be simply a choice between a blessing and a curse, it becomes an impossible black and white zero sum game where we either win or lose. Instead, we need to see the opportunity that the Torah leaves up to us; we can admit that we are guilty but use our explanation as the opportunity for Teshuvah.