parsha of the week

Seeing is knowing, not necessarily believing


There’s an old saying “Seeing is Believing.” But while many idioms have truth, this one is factually inaccurate. I’ve watched many a magic trick, both live and recorded. I see things 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, the background, or what happened after I left. I can speculate, but I only know what I saw.

Our parasha begins with the word “Re’eh” — see, I have placed before you a blessing and a curse. We can argue that Moshe, who in Devarim is in some ways innovative but in others quite repetitive, is putting his cards on the table. He is not saying, “Re’eh! Behold!” He is saying, matter-of-factly, “Re’eh. Look. This is the reality.”

As Chizkuni succinctly puts it, “Until now, he rebuked them to undertake ‘fear of heaven.’ From here and on, he begins to place the mitzvot before them.” 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 mitzvot, the preaching will go nowhere.

Moshe is saying to the people — Look. You have G-d. I think I’ve made the case for relating to Him. But look — you also have people. Your son, your daughter, your servants, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and widow. There is a very clear balance that we must “see” — both a relationship with G-d, and a need to look out for our fellow man.

At the Splitting of the Sea, the people saw G-d’s mighty hand, and they believed. Seeing did not lead to knowing, only belief. For Egypt, on the other hand, Hashem’s goal was that they “know that I am G-d.” Sure enough, as they realized they were trapped and that the water was about to come down on them, the Torah tells us “Egypt said ‘I will fall before Israel, because G-d is fighting for them’.” Egypt knew, yet Israel merely believed. How?

Israel saw what Egypt saw, but their conclusions were a matter of perspective.

Belief, by definition, comes from the unseen. I can believe the Mets have a chance, even though I see them losing. It 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. At the sea, everyone saw the result. They knew Egypt was gone. But while some believed in G-d, some may have believed Moshe was a god. Their knowing of G-d was suspect.

Egypt, on the other hand, was facing their demise. When you witness a nation do the impossible — walk into the seabed on dry land — but you cannot follow suit, you know it comes from a higher power.

How many people, at the end of their lives, know they are about to meet their Maker? For the best of us, there is a dawning moment of clarity where they no longer believe in G-d, but know He is there.

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

The commentaries note that the language of the verse switches from singular to plural between “Re’eh — you the individual needs to see,” and “I am placing before all of you a blessing and a curse.”

Perhaps re’eh is a call to every individual. You, the individual, can see and know if you only open your eyes. But your belief as a collective will remain belief. There is always a skeptic in the crowd, unless, like Egypt knew at the sea, we know that we are going to meet our maker. With all its cynics, the Jewish people as a whole have never achieved what Egypt achieved in the moment the water crashed down upon them.

Individual Jews have come to know G-d personally. But what do they need to see in their lives to get there? Hopefully only blessing and goodness, but sometimes suffering and hardship.

Many of us believe in G-d. 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, G-d’s message to us?

I believe so. But I don’t know.

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

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