By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Re’eh, which opens with the following verses, “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” (Deuteronomy 11:26-27).
When you read the original Hebrew text (unfortunately, there is no way to notice this in the translation), you notice that the whole verse is written by addressing the third person in plural, meaning that Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, to all of them. However, the opening order “See” is written in singular! Sages and commentators of all times tried to provide an appropriate explanation for this.
The great commentator Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089/1092–1164 /1167, one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages) explained the surprising use of the singular form on the command “See” in a very succinct way: “Moses speaks to each individual.” What did Ibn Ezra try to express with his brief explanation? I believe he tried to express that if you want to have an improved society, you need to start by improving yourself!
This is very easy to understand if you think about how a neighborhood behaves. We all like to live in a beautiful, clean, safe, and friendly neighborhood. For that to happen, we also know that we have to do our part. For example, we need to take care of our yard, take out the trash when it’s time and turn on some outside light/s when it’s dark. One lazy neighbor could think that if he/she doesn’t follow these simple rules, the nature of the neighborhood will not be affected that much, since the vast majority of the neighbors are still respecting the basic rules of coexistence. However, if a growing number of “lazy neighbors” start abandoning the basic rules, then the neighborhood will rapidly look bad, unsafe, and dirty, and people will lose their trust in their neighbors. The morale: collective results depend on individual responsibility.
Another great example is a congregation, like our dear Temple Beth El. We all love to have a welcoming and friendly congregation, full of interesting programs and activities. For that to happen, we all need to do our part, and not wait for “other people to take care of things.” No rabbi, lay leader, or committee will replace an individual member’s actions.
That is the reason the first verse of our parasha opens by addressing the individual, and then addresses the collective, as Ibn Ezra masterfully explained. We should abandon the thought of “I don’t have to care, because other people will take care of it.” That will not happen! We all have to care, we are all responsible, individually and collectively. “The group,” or “the leaders” will not do what we fail to do. Our families, our neighborhoods, our congregations, our societies, depend on each one of us individually, we bear a responsibility to each group we are part of.