“See, I am giving before you this day a blessing and a curse…” [Deut. 11:26]. So opens our Biblical portion, Re’eh, which is making reference to the covenant at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eybal which dramatically concludes the Book of Deuteronomy and precedes our entry into the land of Israel.
What I would like to analyze in this commentary is a curious and seemingly pedantic detail, a strange grammatical formulation which, when properly understood, will shed light not only upon the nature of this third and final Pentateuchal covenant but also upon a fundamental philosophy of our religious nationality.
Our verse began with a singular verb which addresses an individual, re’eh – see, but then continues with a plural pronoun, lifnehem – (giving) before you, addressing a multitude. This grammatical switch in number – from singular to plural – is especially worthy of note, since when we do find such Biblical changes they take place in the opposite direction, from plural to singular. In the Biblical portion of the Decalogue, for example, G-d’s introduction addresses in plural form the multitude of Israelites (Exodus 18: 4 ff : “You have seen –re’etem – what I have done to Egypt, and I lifted you – et’hem upon eagles’ wings…”), but then switches to the singular form in the ten commandments themselves (Exodus 20:1 ff: “I am the Lord your G-d – E-lohekha, singular – whom I took you – hotzeitikha, singular – from the land of Egypt…, You shall not murder, lo tirzah, singular”).
Nahmanides explains the switch from plural to singular, and catalogues many other instances when such a transition in number appears, as the desire of G-d to make certain that His words are being heard not only as a command to the general masses but also as a personal injunction to each and every individual! (Ramban, on Genesis 18:3 s.v. Al na).
In effect, G-d is thereby appearing as a Hassidic Rebbe rather than as a Congregational Rabbi, in accordance with the common folk understanding of the distinction between the two. When a congregational Rabbi speaks, every individual believes that he is addressing the person next to him; when a Hassidic Rebbe speaks, every person listening knows and feels that he is addressing him personally.
But if this is the case, how can we understand our opening verse, in which G-d begins with the singular and continues with the plural? I believe that this unusual grammatical phenomenon speaks to the very definition of this third covenant, known as the covenant of arevut or mutual responsibility (B.T. Sotah 33 b). The Israelites, divided by the tribes in two groups of six stand together to receive G-d’s blessings on Mt. Gerizim and G-d’s curses on Mt. Eyval, poised before Shekhem and ready to enter the Promised Land. Our Biblical portion provides the exact location: “Are they not beyond the Jordan, … in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Aravah, over against Gilgal, beside the oak tree of Moreh?” (Deut 11:30). And the term aravah, or plains, is taken by the sages of the Talmud as a double entendre (play on words), the Hebrew arev also meaning co-singer, the individual who takes financial responsibility if a borrower reneges on the payment of his debt.
This is the covenant which insists that every Israelite must see himself as part of a whole, as a member of a nation which sees itself as a united organism whose separate individuals feel inextricably and indelibly bound to each other in fate, destiny and responsibility. Hence G-d begins with the singular and continues into the plural in order to impress upon the individual Israelite that he must in some way merge with the multitude that he must assume responsibility for the entire Jewish people, that “every Israelite is a co-signer, responsible for every other Israelite.”
This is what I believe to be the higher meaning of a shomer torah u-mitzvot, literally a guardian over the Torah and Tradition. It is not sufficient to merely study Torah and to perform the commandments; just as a guardian takes responsibility for the objects in his possession, so must each of us – everyone in his/her own way – take responsibility for the dissemination of Torah and the establishment of proper Torah institutions in his/ her community, in his/her generation.
It is recorded that the famed Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin (early twentieth century) was forced into a dispute with a Cardinal concerning the quality of our Jewish tradition. “The Talmud is blatantly anti – Christian,” argued the Cardinal. “Does it not state that ‘only Israelites are called adam (Hebrew for human beings) whereas Gentiles are not called adam,’ and therefore we Gentiles are not considered by you to be human beings?!”
The Rabbi explained that there are four synonyms for human being in the Hebrew language: gever, ish, enosh and adam. The first three of these nouns have both a singular and a plural: gevarim, ishim, aneshim; only adam has only one form, both singular and plural, humanity – a compound noun, including every one together as a single organism.
If a Jew is suffering in an Islamo–fundamentalist country, or if Israel seems to be in danger, Jews world–wide demonstrate and flock to their homeland. This is a unique Jewish quality, built into our third covenant. In the case of the Jewish nation, the singular merges into the plural, the individual Jew is an inextricable part of his people.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.