In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe Rabbeinu continues to implore the nation to live correctly. He opens with a statement that leaves no room for doubt: following Hashem brings blessing, and disobeying Him brings devastation. Here is the ‘headline’ that Moshe begins with, before he elaborates on his point.
See, I put before you today blessing and curse.
Aside from the powerful lesson this verse contains concerning the consequences of our choices, it includes another, more subtle message as well.
The wording of this verse is difficult. For starters, the introductory expression, “See” (re’eh), seems unnecessary for the point being made- no more than a dramatic turn of phrase. Furthermore, the grammar of this verse seems inconsistent; the verse begins with a singular directive, “See”, and continues in the plural form, “before you (plural).”
The Chasam Sofer (Rav Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839; Germany, Slovakia) answers these questions in light of a Talmudic teaching:
One should always view himself as if the world in its entirety, half of it is innocent and half of it is culpable; if he would do one Mitzvah he would tip the whole world to merit, and if he would do one sin he would tip the whole world to culpability…
-Gemara Kiddushin 40
A person with such a perspective is looking at the world’s very existence as hanging in the balance- and therefore sees what he does in the next moment as what will swing the balance- either saving everyone with a good deed, or, Heaven forbid, condemning everyone with a bad one. Says the Chasam Sofer: this is what our verse is hinting at; a single person should see his action as affecting the public…
The Kotzker Rebbe (Rav Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, Poland; 1787-1859) provides a different approach to the shift from singular to plural, in his trademark incisive style: when it comes to giving– as in Hashem “giving” B’nei Israel the options of blessing and curse- everyone is given equally. Yet when we speak of seeing, the perspective and approach we take with what he has been presented to us, each person is different. Each person sees according to who he is.
We know that every person has his own personality, strengths and weaknesses, and circumstances. The unique package that each person possesses is actually the very reason he or she is in this world; one is given challenges and tests that only this soul is meant to overcome.
Our Rabbis put it succinctly:
Just as their faces are not similar, so too are their makeups not similar.
-Gemara Berachot 58a
Here is the Mesilat Yesharim’s famous opening line:
The foundation of righteousness and the root of complete service is that a person should clarify and verify what his obligation is in his world…
-Mesilat Yesharim, Ch.1
The Mussar masters (those who learn and teach the Torah’s ethics) observe a nuance in the above sentence: one is charged to know his obligation in his world. Of course, we are all obligated to keep the Torah (and non-Jews must keep the Seven Mitzvot B’nei Noach), and this never changes. However, within that, and as a way of striving for and ensuring that these principles are adhered to, we must all know our personal paths.
Additionally, the more a person works on himself, the more his or her viewpoint changes. One may begin his life’s journey as selfish, or jealous, or egotistical, but grow and evolve along as he studies and follows the Torah. Concerted efforts to mitigate negative personality traits and characteristics, or to channel them in the proper direction, will yield results that last a lifetime. Thus, we are charged to choose life and blessing, knowing that the more we make correct decisions, the more elevated will be our view- of this world and the next.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.