By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read Parashat Reeh, which begins: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
In English, “you” can be singular or plural. However, in Hebrew we use different words (pronouns, verbs) for each form of the second person. The paragraph quoted above starts with a call in the singular form, “see.” After that, the whole paragraph is written in plural. Why did the Torah start calling the individual and then switched to addressing the people, the collective?
According to the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman or Elijah of Vilna, 1720–1797, a Talmudist, halakhist, kabbalist, and the foremost leader of non-Hasidic Jewry for the past few centuries), this apparent mix of the singular and plural was done on purpose by Moses, who wanted to teach an important lesson. The paragraph from the Torah we are dealing with speaks about the options we have in life. We can choose the way we go, either a good one or a bad one. In the Torah, free will is a fundamental principle.
The Vilna Gaon wrote that Moses wanted to warn those who choose a way only because many others had chosen that way before. They make their decision with “closed eyes,” without checking the nature of their choice or its essence. That is why the Torah warns us, “See!” in singular, to each one of us; it is upon us to open our own eyes and individually check the nature of the way we are choosing to go.
Many times, in real life, we choose what most people choose, not entirely knowing why we choose that way. We tend to think that if the majority of people made the same choice before, that means it must be a good choice. We tend to eat what most people eat, go on vacations where most people go, and so on. The same thing happens with much more important choices, like the way we live our lives, how we educate our children, and even what moral choices we make. There is nothing wrong with taking paths that many others took before: It is natural and usually works as good advice. However, the Torah warns us that we are ultimately responsible for our individual choices, even if we are simply “following the masses.”
No one will choose for you; you are expected to make your choices responsibly. Reeh, “See!” check it out before you take that way!