By Moe Scott, August 11, 2023
There is a lot to talk about in this parsha. We have the centralization of worship in the site of the future Temple and all of the laws of sacrifice attendant on it; the protocol for responding to idolatrous instigations by false prophets, relatives, and friends, including the subversion of an entire town (in short: all of them are to be put death); a reprisal of the laws of kashrut (in case you didn’t get the memo the first two times), of shmittah (the remission of debts in the sabbatical year), and of indentured servitude; and a summary of the three pilgrimage festivals: Ḥag HaMatzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot. And in case you haven’t yet caught on, this is my way of telling you that I’m going to talk about none of it.
Instead, I’m going to focus on just the first two and a half verses—which we heard Rabbi Dr. Berenbaum leyn for us so nicely:
“See,” Moses proclaims, “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 …”
That’s how the English reads in our Etz Hayim, the specifics of the “blessing” and “curse” coming three weeks from now in parshat Ki Tavo (I won’t spoil them). But it’s not what the Hebrew says, at least not on its face. I’ll read it to you:
אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה׃
אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ
אֶל־מִצְוֺת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם׃
this day I set before you blessing and curse:
the blessing that you listen
to the commandments of the LORD your God
which I command you this day …
In other words, the blessing is not on condition that you, Israel, listen to the commandments of God; the blessing is itself that you listen, that you are able to hear God’s voice at all. The Sefat Emet—Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the preeminent Hasidic commentator living in Poland in the latter 1800s—picks up on this phrasing in his commentary on this verse. He writes (quoting from Rabbi Art Green’s translation):
In everything there is a living point (nekudah ḥiyyut) from the Life of Life. … When you attach yourself to the point within each thing, you will come to see that it is the blessing. Then, indeed, “See” (re’eh)—by negating yourself before the point.
This “point,” this source of divinity the Sefat Emet identifies, is not external; it’s embedded deep within ourselves and the other. This is what we are called to listen to—not with our ears, but our souls. I’m reminded of a reflection I once read by Simone Weil, a French (and, perhaps not incidentally, Jewish) philosopher and mystic, on what it means to truly love our neighbor:
It’s a “way of looking,” she says—of seeing, re’eh—“[that] is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he (or she) is, in all his (or her) truth. Only [one] who is capable of attention can do this.”
Thankfully, since Weil’s time almost a century ago, we’ve become increasingly capable of giving undivided attention to one other. (That was a joke.) I’m not sure even she could have anticipated just how scarce a resource attention would become in a world that treats it like a commodity to be bought and sold. Between social media and streaming services and twenty-four hour news cycles, phones and smartwatches and Apple Vision Pro, everything is vying for our attention except for the person in front of us. We spend arguably more time looking at pictures of friends on screens than we do looking them in the eyes. It’s not long before those screens begin to impair our eyesight and impede our insight, so that we can no longer see the living point, the nekudah ḥiyyut, the innate blessing in all that is. That’s the real curse.
What’s the corrective? How do we cultivate our capacity for sustained attention? Simone Weil suggests struggling with Latin prose or hard geometry problems. (As a former math teacher myself, I can vouch for that.) The Sefat Emet offers something more in line with what we’re doing here: Shabbat. “Shabbat,” he writes, “is a self-negation and inclusion within the point … where the blessing dwells.” By “self-negation” he doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of our devices, but that is what we need to do if we want to be present enough that the boundaries between us dissolve, that our souls empty themselves enough to receive each other and be enveloped together in the blessing of this day.
That’s what a “Shabbat shalom,” a sabbath of peace, would truly be. The sages in the Mishnah speak of peace as a “vessel that holds blessing.” “It brings all things to be,” adds the Sefat Emet, “and is called ‘peace’ (shalom) because it is the shlemut, the fullness of all things, the blessing.” May we all see it for and experience it as the blessing that it is.
 Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, senior ed. David L. Lieber (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 1061.
 The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, translated and interpreted by Arthur Green (Philadelphia: JPS, 1998), p. 301–2.
 Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1951), p. 115.
 Green, The Language of Truth, p. 302.