“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse” is the opening line of this week’s parasha Re’eh. The experience of truly seeing and being seen is one that can have an enormous impact on our lives.
On Shabbat afternoons I am often outside with my four-year-old daughter. I’ll be trying to read something and she’ll be periodically yelling “Ima, watch me”, “Ima – did you see me?” She is demanding to be seen. She requires a witness. This experience has made me reflect on what it is to “see” and to “be seen”. The Rambam writes – what does it mean to love God? It means knowing God. In truth, I’m not sure that knowing is always loving but there certainly is an overlap. My daughter feels loved when she is seen. She feels less alone and more valued when she knows that there is somebody who she loves, who is seeing her with a loving eye.
As we approach the month of Elul and this period of introspection, the idea of seeing ourselves and seeing God has a particular relevance.
Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father Our King – We too are being witnessed with a loving eye. God is recording our lives with great compassion. Hashem is watching and paying great attention to our every action. All of our choices, wins and losses are recorded.
As Rabbi Alan Lew taught:
“This is a tape that never stops rolling. This is how God is different from Big Brother who also knows everything we do and say but who uses it against us. God watches the whole video with a boundless, heartbreaking compassion. God watches us stumble and blunder through this world, weeping profusely as He does.
“It is time for us to begin to acknowledge the truth of our lives. We have a deep need to know this truth, our lives quite literally depend on it, but we can’t seem to get outside ourselves long enough to see it and besides, we are terrified of the truth. But this is a needless terror. What is there is already so. It’s on the tape. Not acknowledging it doesn’t make it go away. We can stand the truth, it is already here and we are already enduring it.
“The tape is rolling, the hand is writing. Someone is watching us endure, waiting to heal us the moment we awake and watch along. From the great pit of our heart, we sense the seeing eye. We sense the knowing ear, watching the drama of our lives unfold, watching with unbearable compassion.”
Our choices are different when we are being watched. In physics this is known as the observer effect; the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation.
There is a midrash that teaches of Boaz when he noticed the poor Ruth collecting grain in his fields, he invited her to eat with him and fed her corn. Yet, if he had known that this meal would be recorded in the Torah and read each year on Shavuot he would have roasted a lamb for her!
But he didn’t think that anyone was paying attention. He didn’t know that his actions were being recorded. Had he realised that he wasn’t invisible, he would have acted differently.
And this is where the work of Teshuvah comes to redeem us. We perform the Vidui. We confess out loud. We must do the work of seeing ourselves and accounting for our lives.
The Chassidic Rebbe known as the Maor VaShemesh interprets the opening line of our parasha “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse” as an invitation to see ourselves and that seeing can be a blessing or a curse. If we see ourselves in an egotistical and narcissistic manner then it is a curse. However if we see ourselves in a humble and compassionate way then it is a blessing.
Rabbi Erin Leib Smokler explains that the injunction to see (“re’eh”) is an invitation to look in the mirror. To behold with honesty and integrity how one appraises oneself; how one’s ego gets in the way of self-development or how it enables it.
Understand that we are entrusted with a responsibility that is both a blessed opportunity and a cursed onus. And with that awareness we must choose to truly see ourselves, each other and to choose the blessing.
Rabbanit Ellyse Borghi from Melbourne received her semichah from Beit Midrash Har’El in Jerusalem and works as a children’s lawyer for Legal Aid.