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Seeing and Being Seen: Parshat Re’eh

Eitan Cooper
| 16/08/2019

This week’s Torah portion begins with an admonition to see: “Re’eh,” and concludes with the commandment “Yira’eh” (you are to be seen), which obligates all males to appear at least several times a year in the sacred city of Jerusalem

Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes points out that to fulfill our human potential and become in the image of an invisible God, we actually need to be visible, show up and be responsible for each other.

Watch the video and read the accompanying article below:

In Edinburgh a few weeks ago, I saw a Fringe Festival performance by a troupe of talented young actors dramatizing H.G. Wells’ late 19th century novel, “The Invisible Man,” and creating a parallel story about people today using the invisibility afforded by the internet to unleash monstrous memes. H.G. Wells’ story was his response to an age-old philosophical question first posed by the story of Gyges’ Ring in Plato’s “Republic:” If there existed a ring that makes its wearer invisible, would its possessor use it to promote justice or for personal gain? For good or for evil?

This week’s Torah portion begins with an admonition to see: “Re’eh,” and concludes with the commandment “yira’eh” (you are to be seen), which obligates all males to appear at least several times a year in the sacred place, to be chosen by God (Jerusalem).  Hearing is the sense embodied in faith and illustrated by “Shema Yisrae,l” but the Torah stresses the visual: “seeing and being seen” as the key to successfully building a holy nation.

Re’eh is an introduction to the laws that will govern the Israelites in the Land they are about to enter. Moses makes clear that it is our choice: obey the laws and you will be blessed; don’t obey them and you will be cursed. Look upon Mt. Gerizim, forested and watered, and you will see a blessing, look on Mt. Ebal, and you will see a desolate wasteland. To this day, one can actually view this unique natural geographical symbol from the town of of Nablus, the site of Biblical Shechem, sandwiched in a deep valley between the two mountains.

Returning to H.G. Wells’ horror story, Griffin, the tragic scientist, invents a serum for invisibility that he successfully tries on himself. Having no antidote, he begins after a while to think of himself as a god, exempt from all rules, free to steal and murder. His monstrous crimes detected, he is soon hunted down and killed.

Another modern “Invisible Man” was Ralph Ellison’s great mid-twentieth century novel about the African American experience – describing in the first person what it is like to be part of a permanent, invisible underclass.

Today the centrifugal forces of mobility and secularization pose new challenges endemic to life in the information age. We travel around the globe, in airliners and by surfing on the web. Technology enables us to operate outside the narrow confines of geography and of social norms regulated by borders and law. The anti-social memes resulting from this are familiar and available to all of us with an easy click. It is often difficult to resist being swept-in by them.

From these contemporary perspectives, invisibility poses primarily an ethical threat. Digital technologies have enabled, on the one hand an invisible class of the super-wealthy that sets its own rules of behavior, and on the other hand, renders invisible large subclasses of humanity, with many negative social results.

The Torah’s answer to this threat to our humanity was “reayon” (being “visible”) at least three times a year. All came up to Jerusalem bearing first fruits; to eat a tithe’s worth of their produce; to bring the Pesach sacrifice; to celebrate the other pilgrimage holidays. While the parsha makes clear that “the poor shall never cease to be in the land,” the regular mixing together of rich and poor, of Jew by birth and Jew by choice, from every tribe of Israel, mitigated the vast inequalities that characterized daily life then and now, offering a model for communal solidarity and well-being to humanity today.

A midrash on the opening verse of Re’eh tells of an angel who leads us about all day, protecting us from harmful demons, proclaiming, “Make way for God’s image!” To fulfill our human potential and become the image of an invisible God, to make the Land a blessing rather than a curse for its inhabitants, we need to be visible, to be there and be responsible for each other. Reading Re’eh and the weekly portions that follow reveal this as the clearest lesson to us from our forbearers in ancient Israel.

Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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