RE'EH, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Barry Schwartz argues in his book The Paradox of Choice that the key to happiness is having less choice. Americans are discontented exactly because they have too many choices!
Just this afternoon, I stood in my local grocery store with my 4-year-old, watching as her mind and body attempted to chase after every desirable food in the store. I want these cookies, not those cookies. I started to get nervous as her tone became more heated — but then I was saved! She spotted a drink she desired and began lobbying for that. Moments later, she realized that Pirate Booty was available and was upset that I had chosen potato chips instead. She was becoming more and more agitated, so I sent her to wait outside with dad. She never brought up the cookies again.
It was easy for me to see, after a second of believing it was about the cookies, that it was really about having too many choices. I recognized the behavior from my own. I often find myself paralyzed in front of a grocery shelf — which brand, what to make for dinner, how much of it to buy — these choices take on an import in the moment that rivals the urgency of almost everything else in my life.
In parshah Re'eh, Moses gives the people a choice: "I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … and curse if you do not obey … but turn away … and follow other gods." This choice between only two things seems simple. Blessing or curse? What could be so hard about that?
Yet, it is human nature to be confounded by any choice, no matter how limited. Moses is so concerned that the Israelites will choose to follow other gods, that he commands them to tear down all the sacred places of these gods when they enter the land. The portion even warns that if your closest relative — your brother, son, daughter or wife — attempts to lure you into worshipping other gods, you must not give in and you must be the first to put them to death. This scenario strikes me as so extreme that it makes me think there must have been a real problem, and a real fear, of people following this other path, of taking the second, cursed choice.
When we have a truly important decision to make, we often have just as much difficulty. Even after careful consideration, it can be excruciating to commit to one choice or another, even when one is clearly healthier or kinder or wiser. Buddhist wisdom on this is that we have trouble deciding because we falsely believe that one or the other choice will truly lead to happiness, rather than realizing that this happiness is more dependent on how we work with the decision we do make.
Perhaps this is why Moses prefaces the choice he lays out with the opening word of the portion: "See!" "Re'eh!" The word doesn't add any information about the choice, but it does get our attention and alert us to the importance of the decision. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: "We are commanded first to SEE, because without that clear vision, it may not be possible to discern blessing from curse."
When we seek to choose blessing on our lives, we need to clear the space in our hearts and minds in order to be able to see what our real choices are. May we spend less time agonizing over the many small decisions that distract us, and more time honing the vision of discernment and choosing the path of blessing.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]