This was my D'var Torah for Parashat Re'eh last Shabbat, August 12, 2023.
Two friends encounter each other late at night near the town square. It’s a classic small New England town, gazebo in the center, and it’s a particularly clear night, the new moon. The one finds the other kneeling down next to a street light looking around at the sidewalk.
“Hi! What are you doing?”
“I was here earlier and I lost my ring, so I’m looking for it.”
“Where do you think you lost it?”
“I’m pretty sure over there by the gazebo,” says the first one, pointing across the street at the village green.
“So why are you looking over here?”
“Oh! Because the light is better.”
This is what it’s like for us often, when we’re looking for something we need or we’ve lost. It’s hard to get ourselves to look in certain places, hard or scary, and often it’s easier to stay where we already know how to see the things we’ve learned how to see.
Which is why the opening to our parasha is so surprising. Re’eh Look -- I am giving in front of you today a blessing and curse. Re’eh, anochi notayn lifnaychem hayom b’rachah uk’lalah.
When the Torah wants to get our attention, it almost never says Re’eh, “see” -- it says: Sh’ma! Listen. It’s not “Look O Israel Adonai is your God...”; it’s Sh’ma Yisrael.
Seeing and hearing are two very different metaphors, and I think the metaphors are meaningful even for those of us whose physical sight or hearing is not perfect.
Seeing is the most problematic of our senses. We can only look in one direction at a time, and even those of us with good peripheral vision miss things a bit to the side. When we’re looking for something particular, we miss other things even right in front of us -- like the study where the subjects were asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count passes between players, and completely missed the gorilla walking across the court.
We have eyelids that we can deliberately close. We “see with our own lens.” We talk about “looking the other way”, in order to avoid seeing a person who needs us or a wrong we know is being done. We can use our mind to override the inputs that our eyes might want to give us. And some of the al-chets on Yom Kippur, the list of wrongs, are about our eyes -- sikkur ayin, leering at someone; aynaim ramot, looking down on someone.
And seeing is different from hearing because what we perceive through our eyes alone is always on the surface. Seeing often stands for judging a book by its cover.
Or looking in a certain direction is just hard, or painful. This week, it’s hard to look at certain places in this Sanctuary where someone is so palpably missing.
So seeing is imperfect and it’s difficult -- and it’s easier just to look in the light.
Hearing is a different metaphor. Our ears hear a voice from deep within someone trying to say something real, or a cry from the heart. We can try to plug our ears, but we can’t close them at all the way we can with our eyes. There’s no real way to turn your head in a direction so you don’t hear.
Sounds force us to pay attention even when we try not to -- if the gorilla made a sound, you couldn’t help yourself from noticing that it’s different from the dribble of a basketball.
So it’s not surprising that in the Sh’ma itself -- the prayer that opens with “Hear O Israel”-- the Torah tells us to look at our tzitzit so our eyes have something mitzvah-centered to focus on, v’lo tatura acharei l’vavchem, v’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem -- and don’t go straying after your mind, and after your eyes which you go lusting after!
Moshe in our parasha talks about doing the right thing in the future as the opposite of the desert, where “everyone does anything that seems right in their own eyes” -- ish kol hayashar b’einav. Maybe it goes all the way back to Gan Eden, to Chava taking a look at that fruit.
Sh’ma is a spiritual paradigm for us -- for being responsive to others, letting ourselves be drawn out toward them even when we’re not prepared, getting to what’s beneath the surface in the people around us. And it’s a paradigm for responding even to our own inner voice, our own prayers and our cries. Sh’ma is all over this parasha, it’s one of the most important words in the whole book of D’varim.
So why does our parasha say: Re’eh. See this important thing I want you to have, a blessing as well as a curse to stay away from. And by the way just for good measure, Moshe messes with the people: See what I am putting in front of you today, which is that in a few weeks I’m going to show it to you on some mountains across the river which you literally can’t see from where you are now.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson teaches: Nonetheless, Moshe uses the language of Re’eh instead of Sh’ma here, because we don’t have the option to replace seeing with hearing. What we can do is to make our seeing more like our hearing.
In our parasha, human eyes are generally not a good metaphor -- but Divine eyes are. Kira Sirote points out a unique phrase in the Bible that appears once in the Torah and a couple places in the prophets, and the phrase is ayin b'ayin, literally an eye in an eye.
It’s used once in the Torah for the most famous law about the eye, an eye for an eye (and there’s a nugget about that you can ask me later how it connects). But in the prophets, Kira notes, the phrase talks about a moment when the regular human eye becomes a prophet’s eye. “How beautiful on the mountains are the legs of the one who announces redemption, making sounds of peace... Your lookouts will raise their voices because eye in eye they will see the Divine returning, ayin b’ayin yir’u b’shuv Adonai"! (Isaiah 52:7-8)
Imagine seeing something as simple as another person’s leg, just a person walking, and immediately perceiving from somewhere deeper that redemption is almost here, that peace is possible within yourself or in the world -- that reunions are possible with people, and our own souls and dreams, and even I pray with loved ones across the boundary between this world and the next.
Imagine if there was an eye inside your eye, whose default was to wonder what depth or what feeling is beneath the surface of any person you see.
A kind of spiritual infrared, an eye that perceives more wavelengths when it sees, that almost hears when it looks.
An eye looking at tzitzit not to avoid being distracted, but to follow them out past their ends in each of the four directions because there is too much here not to miss.
An eye that closes long enough to replenish itself to see more, or to leave time to see dreams.
An eye inside your eye that saw when another person was looking over here because it’s hard for them right now to look over there.
That I believe was Chava’s eye in Gan Eden, which saw that the fruit was good and nourishing, and beautiful, and worth thinking about more, before she took it and shared it.
Two friends encounter each other, and one of them has lost something. The other asks, “Why are you looking over here,” and the first one says, “Because here the light is better.”
And the friend says, “Maybe we can look there together.” Or: “Would it help if I stayed around here while you went over there.” Or: “I’ll be here again if you want to look tomorrow.”
As we look ahead to the moonless night later this week that marks the month of Elul, that leads us to the new year -- may our seeing be as good as our hearing. May we help each other make our way to the mountains we can’t yet see where announcers are calling us; help each other see the blessings in the places that are harder to search. And may we all see each other with the eye inside our eye.