“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”
-Deuteronomy 11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh
Numerous times in the book of Deuteronomy, God offers us the choice between blessing and curse, then urges us to choose blessing. Why? Surely this seems like no-brainer. Who wouldn’t prefer blessings over curses?
But perhaps the choice is more difficult than it appears at first glance. Before laying out the options, God implores us, see; indeed, the Hebrew word for seeing, re’eh gives our portion its name. Here is the challenge: in order to discern the paths of blessing and curse, we have to look very carefully. All too often in life, we pay half-hearted attention to what we are doing, and when we do this, it is easy to take the wrong way. If anything, this is even truer today than it was for our biblical forebears, given the immense amount of distractions that our technological culture showers upon us.
With this in mind, our tradition gives us a full month before the Days of Awe to work on our seeing. This is the first week of Elul, the Hebrew month of preparation for the High Holy Days. Our challenge is to use this time to look carefully at both the world around us and the world within us—so that we might make better choices in both in the coming weeks.
How do we do this? In his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew offers a suggestion that is both profound and realistically achievable. He writes: “Focus on one thing. It may not be realistic to expect a significant number of people to suddenly begin showing up at prayer minyans or mediation groups during the month of Elul. . . So I am pleased to inform you that it is perfectly possible to fulfill the ancient imperative to begin becoming more self-aware during this time without doing these things. Let me recommend a simpler method, and you won’t even have to set aside a special time to practice this. Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul. ‘A world in a grain of sand,’ as the poet Williamk Blake reminded us. Everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives. It doesn’t really make any difference what it is that we choose to focus on, but it ought to be something pretty basic, something like eating or sex or money, if for no other reason than that these concerns are likely to arise quite frequently in our lives and to give us a lot of grist for the mill. The truth of our lives is reflected in everything we do, and if we focus on even one small part of our lives, it brings up the entire truth of it.
Give it a try. Choose one thing—just one thing—and pay really close attention to it throughout this month. Then see—really see—re’eh—how you can bring a bit more holiness into your life in the coming year.