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Re'eh 5783    August 27, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

     After the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God assigns a curse to both the first man and the first woman. For Adam, growing food will be hard work, no more easy pickings in the Garden but only through sweat and labor will the earth bring forth its bounty. For Eve, the curse is that childbirth will not be easy, it will be hard and painful. And then both of them are exiled from the Garden.

     Some of the curse of Adam was mitigated by Noah who is considered by the Rabbis as the inventor of the plow, making farming so much easier. In this week’s Haftara, the prophet Isaiah declares that God will deliver a child so fast, that the birth will happen before the labor pains begin. It is considered a great miracle. Whoever has heard of a woman who gives birth to a child so fast that the labor pains only come later?

     The fact is that this is a story that the Bible tells us over and over again. Take the creation story itself. First God creates the universe and puts human beings into the world without any pain at all. Only later, when those human beings sin, does the pain of living begin. Take the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Egyptians suffer painfully the many plagues that God brings down upon them, but Israel is redeemed from slavery, crosses the Sea of Reeds, and arrives at Sinai without any real suffering on their part. It is in the rest of the Torah we find the struggles of the people to live up to God’s expectations.

     One of the teachers and commentators at the Fuchsberg Center for Judaism in Israel, Bex Stern Rosenblat comments on this recurring story. “The Tanakh tells the same story, over and over again, in four basic versions. It is the story of creation, turning astray, punishment, and restoration. We read this story first in the story of Eve and Adam, the story of the creation of humanity and the explanation of our most fundamental nature. We read this story over and over again throughout the Exodus from Egypt, as God creates Israel, the nation that strays from God’s laws and suffers before God returns us to them. We read this story with the creation of Israel, the place full of Israelites who whore after the people of the land and their gods. The land vomits us out and we go into exile, before being returned again to the land.”

     We see stories like this so often in the Bible that we wonder if the people of Israel will ever learn the lesson that God is trying to teach us. Can we be recipients of great miracles and then be faithful and walk in God’s ways or we will suffer pains that will accompany us at all moments in life because we can’t return the faith that God has in us?

     I don’t mean to denigrate the labor pains a woman feels as she gives birth to a child. There are no free rides in life. Even if there are ways to mitigate the pain of giving birth, there is still the long years of trial and tribulation that comes with raising a child in this world. Sometimes it seems that at any moment a wonderful day could turn into a time of pain and suffering. No matter how we may try to protect our children, there will always be skinned knees, hurt feelings and situations that are unfair. Preparing our children for calamities large and small is not the fun part of parenting but it is an important part. Being resilient is part of life too.

     Parshat Reeh talks about life being a choice between blessings and curses. Moshe Rabbenu, at the end of his life reminds us that there are life and death decisions that we must make, and we should always choose life. If we stop and think about this it is really a “no brainer.” Who would, if given a choice, choose curses and death? Ilana Kurshan, also at the Fuchsberg Center writes this in her Devar Torah, quoting the Sifre, one of the oldest commentaries on Devarim. She writes, “The midrash (Sifre Deuteronomy 53) begins by drawing a parallel between the opening verses of our parashah and a verse from much later in Deuteronomy, towards the conclusion of Moshe’s long and final address to the people: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (30:19). People might think that since there are two options, they can feel free to choose either one – the blessing or the curse. The second verse is necessary to teach that God commands us to choose the path of life and blessing. The midrash then cites a parable about a person sitting at a crossroads with two paths before him, one of which starts out smoothly but ends in a thorny bramble, and one of which starts out thorny but ends in a clearing. The person informs every passerby, “Do you see this path which starts out smoothly? For two or three paces you will walk easily, and then it leads to thorns. And do you see that other path that is full of thorns at the beginning? For two or three steps you will walk through thorns, but it ends in a clearing.” The passerby, who can see only what lies before, does not realize that the paths are deceptive; the one that seems clear will, in fact, prove thorny, and vice versa. He needs the man at the crossroads in order to make an informed decision about which way to go.” 

     Just like parents who must teach their children to find their way in life, God too wants all of us to find our way in life. Torah is the “man” at the crossroads. The stories of God saving us only to see us act ungrateful teaches us to know the difference in the roads. We all too often take what looks like the easy path in life only to find that while it may start out easy, soon enough we get ourselves into trouble. But when we take the time to maneuver through the troubles first, we are ready to face whatever may come down the road so everything becomes clear before us. It is not just everyday that we face such a crossroad; we face crossroads almost every moment of our lives. Will we do what seems to be easy only to get tangled up later, or do we do the hard work first so the rest of our path can be clear sailing? That is our choice. How our hour, day and life turn out depends on the decisions that we are making all the time.

     But I want to take this just one step further. God does not just want us to find our way down “easy street.” There is an even higher passage that we are being called to travel. Why does God make miracles for us? Why did God put humans into a garden where everything they needed was right there for them? Why did God protect Abraham all through his life? Why did God save our people from slavery? Why did God forgive our people time and time again no matter how much they sinned?

     The secret behind God’s motives is that God wants us to have a close relationship to God. God wants us to live a good, blessed life that helps cement the friendship between the human and the divine. God does the divine part. God sets us up to be successful and to be grateful. But all too often, instead of drawing closer to God, we do things that drive us away. We do not live up to our promises to God. We do not consider the direction Torah points out to us. We often do not value our Judaism even though it is designed to bring us closer to God and closer to finding meaning in our life. We are given a choice and we do not choose wisely.

     I do understand that there are many distractions that vie to get us off our path. We are bombarded with commercials that tell us that the path to happiness is to buy something new. We have social media feeds that point out all the different ways others are having happier lives than we are. Tabloids are filled with stories of famous people who do fantastic things and reap rich rewards.

     But there is a man/a Torah at the crossroads that points out to us that some paths seem so clear at the beginning and end up with us tangled in the weeds. Money is not the answer; fame and fortune are not the answer; being clever or talented is not the answer to success in life. Our tradition teaches us that we should walk in God’s ways. We should dwell in God’s shadow. We should do all the things that God does: i.e., clothe the naked, feed the hungry, support the oppressed, honor the stranger, and yes, to even bury the dead is a last act of honor to the deceased.

     This is not easy stuff. We find we are going against the grain of everyone else in life. Our path is not as easy as their paths seems to be. But our path will take us where we ultimately want to go, to become the person we wish / ought to be. It will make us into people that our parents would be proud of, that our friends will be proud of and that will be an example for those in generations still arising. We may not be perfect like God, but God keeps forgiving us our mistakes as long as we are trying to navigate the proper path God has laid out for us.

     This is the time to consider what path we are on and if it will be the path that will ultimately take us to where we want to go. We have a choice, blessing or curse; life or death; the hard path that will become clear or the clear path that will become hard. It is always our choice.

     And God is always waiting to welcome us home.

     May God help us find our way clear to a life of kindness, meaning, love and peace as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784