Friday, August 10, 2018

Seeing is Knowing. Not Seeing is Believing

Parshat Re'eh

by Rabbi Avi Billet

There’s an old saying “Seeing is Believing.” But the truth is, while many idioms have truth to them – this one is factually inaccurate. 

I’ve watched many a magic trick – both live and on recorded videos. I see things that I cannot believe. I know they are tricking me. 

A more accurate statement is sometimes made in court. “Your honor, I know what I saw.” I may not know the context, I may not know the background, I may not know what preceded what I saw, or what happened after I left. But I know what I saw

I can speculate about all the things I believe were going on. But I only know what I saw

When things are going well for the NY Mets, their fans say “You gotta believe!” Thought irrelevant this year, all the realists mock the “believing” because we “know” what the end of the season will look like. We see it every year, so we know. 

Our parsha begins with the word “Re’eh. See – I have placed before you today a blessing and a curse.” Perhaps we can argue that Moshe, who in some ways is innovative, but in some ways quite repetitive in the book of Devarim, is putting his cards on the table. He is not saying, “Reeh – see! Behold!” He is saying, matter of factly - “Re’eh. Look. This is the reality. Obviously blessing is where we want to be. Not being recipients of a curse.” 

As Chizkuni puts it quite succinctly, “Until now he rebuked them to undertake ‘fear of heaven;’ from here and one he begins to place the mitzvoth before them.” Which I take to mean that you can preach fear of heaven from today until doomsday, but without practical steps for how to get there, such as through the observance of mitzvoth, the preaching will go nowhere. 

Moshe is saying to the people – Look. You have God. I think I’ve made the case plainly as to how you are to relate to Him. But LOOK. You also have people – you, your son, your daughter, your male and female servant, the Levite. 

Countless times the stranger, orphan and widow are also mentioned. There is a very clear balance that we must “see!” both a relationship with God, and a need to look out for our fellow man. 

At the splitting of the sea, the people saw God’s mighty hand, and they “believed” in God. It is most interesting that seeing doesn’t lead to knowing God. For Egypt, on the other hand, since even before the plagues, God’s goal was “that Egypt will know that I am God.” And sure enough, as they realized they were trapped and that the water will be coming down on them, the Torah tells us “Egypt said I will fall before Israel because God is fighting for them against Egypt.” Egypt knows, yet Israel merely believes. How? 

It is a great question – especially since there is a time in the Torah when God notes that Israel will know that I am the God Who took them out of Egypt (Shmot 29:46) 

Israel saw what Egypt saw, but the conclusion each side came to was a matter of perspective. 

Because belief by definition comes from something you don’t see. I can believe the Mets have a chance, even though I see them losing. Because belief requires a suspension of what I know to be true. If I know it, I don’t need to believe it. It is a certainty. For example – at the sea, everyone saw the result. They “knew” Egypt was dead and gone. But while some believed in God, some may have believed Moshe was a god! Their “knowing” God is suspect. 

Egypt, on the other hand, was facing their demise. When you see one group go through the impossible, then you try to follow suit and somehow the situation that held water no longer does, you “know” this is coming from a higher power. 

How many people, at the very end of their lives, “know” they are about to meet their maker? There is a moment of clarity which dawns on the best of us, when we no longer believe in God, but we know He is there. 

But for the rest of us, perhaps there is a little thought, like Nathan Jessup said, “In a place we don’t talk about at parties,” where there is a smidgen of doubt. I don’t know for sure, but I believe. Because I can’t see! How could I know what I can’t see? I can only believe. 

Many of the commentaries note that the language of the verse switches from singular to plural. “Reeh- you the individual needs to see,” that “I am placing before you the collective, the blessing and the curse.” 

Perhaps Re’eh is a call to every individual, as opposed to the collective, united as one. You the individual can see and know if you only open your eyes. But your belief as a collective will remain belief because there is always a skeptic, unless it’s the end of life, and together we know – like Egypt knew at the sea – that we are going to meet our maker. 

In Shmot 29, the Israelites’ knowing of God is a recounting of something that should have happened, but didn’t. Had the people all looked and seen the cloud, and put two and two together, they’d have known Who God was. 

With all the skeptics and cynics, the Jewish people as a collective whole have never achieved what Egypt achieved in that moment as the water came crashing down. 

Even when we see everything we’re supposed to see, the conclusions we come to as to what we KNOW is often misguided.

Individual Jews have come to know God personally. But what do they need to see in their lives to get there? Hopefully only blessing and goodness. But sometimes suffering and hardship. It’s a goal we should all have, to know God, and to Love Him intimately. 

Many of us believe in God. But belief, which requires a small leap of faith, doesn’t come from what you see. It comes from what you don’t see. When you don’t know, you can still hang onto belief. Was that injury, accident, financial loss, illness, healing, coincidence, finance deal, God’s way of sending us little messages? I believe so. But I don’t know

With Elul upon us, of course we need to work on our relationship with God. But more importantly, in many cases, we need to work on our relationship with our fellow man. 

If we can only see what our task at hand is, when we do our part, we can be confident, hopefully knowing that God is here, that our relationship with Him is strong; and as He sees that we look out for our family, as well as the destitute, we will have the confidence of blessing for the coming year.

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