Between Ekev and Re’eh
For the first eleven chapters of the Book of Devarim, the primary focus has been on the events that happened to Israel in the desert and what awaits them when they enter the land of Canaan. From chapter 12 until chapter 26, most of what we read will be specific laws and rules that the people must follow.
Surprisingly, that natural division is not reflected in the divisions between the parshiyot. Parashat Re’eh begins with a few verses (Devarim 11:26-32) that could have just as easily ended Parashat Ekev. They mention the blessing and curse that Moshe places before Israel, and another exhortation by Moshe to follow the laws. These are both very similar to the verses preceding them at the end of Parashat Ekev. So why did the Sages decide to begin the parasha that leads the long set of laws here, instead of in the beginning of chapter 12?
Perhaps this choice was based on the language of those opening verses of Parashat Re’eh. While many of the verses in the Book of Devarim vary between the singular and plural forms, in the opening of Parashat Re’eh it stands out prominently:
“See [singular], this day I set before you [plural] blessing and curse.” (Devarim 11:26)
The commentators picked up on this peculiarity. For example, Ibn Ezra says this means that Moshe is addressing each individual. Ibn Kaspi says that the singular form meant that he was speaking to the entire nation as one, whereas the plural form meant that the nation was made up of many people.
Kli Yakar expands on this idea and quotes the Talmudic dictum (Kiddushin 40b) that “A person must always view things as if the entire world is half righteous and half wicked. If he performs a single mitzvah he tips himself and the entire world to the side of merit.” Therefore, he concludes,
“every single action affects all of them.”
This is an important message going forward, when the following chapters are composed of commandment after commandment. While some of the commandments are of a national character (for example those in Parashat Shoftim, regarding the roles of national leaders), many of the mitzvot appear to relate to only the individual who chooses to perform them or not. That perspective has a tendency to spill over into all of the mitzvot. An individual may therefore conclude that what they share with the poor is up to them to determine, and how they participate in other societal obligations is ultimately a personal choice. In the end, everyone will, on their own, determine what is right and wrong.
But the lesson of the opening verse of Parashat Re’eh can teach us that the individual can’t be so easily separated from the nation. Each individual choice can, and will, lead to collective blessing or curse. The Torah did not come to found a religion of unconnected individuals, but to establish a nation that would follow God’s laws.