You would be hard-pressed to find a more stark and unambiguous warning than the opening of our parsha:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
“Behold I put before you today (a choice of 2 paths you can take in life – one that is) – a blessing and (one that is) a curse” (Devarim 11:26).
Midrash Tanchuma discusses how God helps us make the right choices in life and how to get back on the right path.
Can you hear God whispering?
The first insight is that God always warns you. Not some kind of vague warning, rather a warning right into your ear. If you disregard that warning then God will bring some adversity to wake you up. What is surprising is the particular episode in the Torah which the Midrash chose as the prooftext. It’s when Moshe conveys God’s warning to Pharaoh in the Exodus story.
כִּ֛י אִם־מָאֵ֥ן אַתָּ֖ה לְשַׁלֵּ֣חַ אֶת־עַמִּ֑י הִנְנִ֨י מֵבִ֥יא מָחָ֛ר אַרְבֶּ֖ה בִּגְבֻלֶֽךָ
“If you refuse to send out My people, I will bring locusts to your territory tomorrow” (Exodus 10:4 – Midrash Tanchuma Re-eh, 2:1).
This seems to be an odd choice for a prooftext. After all, God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so he would not heed God’s warning. What relevance does that have for the rest of us? Surely, God’s warning to Cain before he murdered his brother would have been more poignant?.. לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ.. “…Sin crouches at the door..” (Bereishis 4:7).
Perhaps the Midrash chose the example of Pharaoh to make a point. Warnings, even when they are conveyed, repeatedly, right into the ears of the person for whom they are intended – are most often ignored. God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” may not mean that God interfered with his free will.* Rather, given the ego of the world’s most powerful leader, it would be virtually impossible for Pharaoh to heed the warning. Perhaps we too let many other distractions and rationalizations drown out God’s messages. Our hearts are no less “hardened” than that of Pharaoh.
What does a warning sound like?
The primary commentator on Midrash Tanchuma, Be’er Ha’amorim, says that God’s messages can take one of four forms: A prophecy, a dream, adversity, or rebuke. (Midrash Tanchuma, 2 – (ד’’ה: עַד שֶׁהוּא גּוֹלֶה לְאָזְנוֹ)
Rebuke doesn’t mean someone will tap you on the shoulder and give you a piece of their mind. It may take many forms – even from unsuspecting messengers. Whatever you hear from anyone, whatever you overhear, and whatever you read (even checking news online or seeing a billboard) might well be a message from God.
My friend, Rabbi Yaakov Hammer signs off each email with this quote attributed to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov: “Every single thing that a person sees or hears, is an instruction to him about his conduct in the service of God.”
If we fail to respond to God’s messages there are two specific laws that help God grant us forgiveness. As Midrash Tanchuma states:
רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דְּסַכְנִין בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר,ישְׂרָאֵל מִתְחַטְּאִין לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, בִּזְכוּת שַׁבָּת, וּבִזְכוּת מַעַשְׂרוֹת
“Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi, Israel atones for itself before the Omnipresent in the merit of (observing) the Sabbath and by merit of tithes” (Midrash Tanchuma, Re-eh, 11:1).
Why these two laws? Perhaps because those who keep Shabbat attest to the fact that God created the world. Those who tithe attest to the fact that God created their world – their farm, their career, their profits and losses. If you have the faith to give away 10% of your produce to the (Cohen) priest, then you understand that God is the source of all income. If you have the faith to not work on the Sabbath, God will reward you as well. Like the famous quote attributed to Ahad Ha’am: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
The Message embedded in tithing – the guaranteed growth fund
Another law in our Parsha is Tithing עַc כָּל־תְּבוּאַ֣ת זַרְעֶ֑ךָ הַיֹּצֵ֥א הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה שָׁנָ֥ה שָׁנָֽה׃
“You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field” (Devarim 14:22).
It has tremendous power today in the form of charity. In the Code of Jewish Law – Shulchan Aruch (Yorah Deah: 247:4) it states that Charity prevents harsh edicts from Heaven, and in times of famine, charity can save one from death. The “Rama” (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe Isserles**), says that giving charity makes you rich. Although we are usually prohibited to test God, you can, when it comes to charity. The Rama acknowledges that there are opinions which say that this only works with tithing from produce. However, the idea of material gains from giving charity is also brought down in the Talmud:
וא”ר יוחנן מאי דכתיב (דברים יד, כב) עשר תעשר עשר בשביל שתתעשר
“And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: ‘A tithe shall you tithe [te’aser]’ (Ibid): Tithe [asser] so that you will become wealthy [titasher]’” (Talmud Taanit 9a).
Tithe from your talents
The Midrash provides a creative extension to the obligation of tithing:
כַּבֵּד אֶת ה’ מֵהוֹנְךָ “Honor God from everything you were blessed with” (Mishlei 3:9).
The Midrash (12:1) says that if God gifted you with a beautiful voice then show your gratitude by volunteering to lead the prayer services. The Midrash takes this idea one step further. What would you do if God gifted you with great looks? In this case, you must show your gratitude with restraint:
שֶׁאִם הָיִיתָ נָאֶה, אֶל תְּהִי פָּרוּץ בָּעֲרָיוֹת, שֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ הַבְּרִיּוֹת אוֹמְרִין, אִישׁ פְּלוֹנִי נָאֶה וְאֵינוֹ גָּדוּר מִן הָעֶרְוָה
“If you are handsome, do not be unrestrained in sexual matters, lest people say, ‘So and so is handsome but not restrained in sexual matters’” (Midrash Tanchuma Re-eh, 12:1).
The Torah has a difficult request. Your attractiveness affords you an easy path to sexual immorality. Don’t succumb to the expectations and vanity that society imposes upon you – “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” After all, gifts from God are a test from God – will you use them for the good?
In 2021, American born, Israeli runner, Beatie Deutsch, was chosen to star in an ad campaign for Adidas running shoes. In an interview she said “Here I am teaching Judaism through sports,” She explained that “by dressing modestly while running and still juggling the laws of Judaism, she shows people that you can be an observant Jew and still compete at the highest level. “My ultimate goal in life is to share the beauty of Judaism and impact people to spread light in that way because I did not dream about being an athlete, ever. “
If we follow the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov – that everything you see, hear or read is God communicating to you – then God is indeed laying out a choice of 2 paths you can take in life.
* This is one of the classic answers that the commentaries offer to the question of how God could interfere with Pharaoh’s free will. In effect, God restored Pharaoh’s free will so he could truly do what he wanted to do without being swayed by the messages of Moshe.
** who offers the Ashkenazi rulings in the Shulchan Aruch