A popular Israeli pop song decries the intricacies of the “New Hebrew” language in which every other word comes from modern English: “Oh-my-G-d, safa kasha, ha’Ivrit ha’chadasha” – “Oh my G-d, what a difficult language, this New Hebrew!” Truth be told, the Old Hebrew isn’t much easier. Possibly the most difficult facet to master is Hebrew’s gender and number specificity. In Australia, a person who sees something interesting will yell “Look!”. In Israel, a person must first decide if he is speaking to a male or to a female and whether he is speaking to one person or to a group of people. He must also determine the gender of the object he is looking at. This is frustratingly difficult to master. Nearly forty years after moving to Israel, I still find myself sounding foolish at important meetings.
Parashat Re’eh begins with a classic example of a singular-plural mismatch [Devarim 11:26]: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”. The word “See” – “Re’eh” – appears in the masculine singular, while the word “before you” – “lifneichem” – appears in the masculine plural. In order to remain consistent, both words should either have appeared in the singular, with “lifneichem” being replaced by “lefa’necha”, or both words should have appeared in the plural, with “Re’eh” being replaced by “Re’u”. Had an American Oleh made this mistake, people would likely have sniggered behind his back. But as it is the Torah that is speaking, the ramifications here are much more serious.
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the early seventeenth century, notes this inconsistency in his “Kli Yakar”. Rabbi Luntschitz explains the mismatch as follows “This is what our Sages teach us: 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, Moses told every individual ‘See’, that he should see in his mind that every single action affects all of them”. The problem with Rabbi Luntschitz’s answer, and for that matter, with every other answer that I found, is that the Torah continues to bounce back and forth between singular and plural for the duration of the chapter. While verses 27 and 28 remain in the plural, verse 29 is written in the singular and two verses later, the Torah jumps back to the plural. It seems that there is no unequivocal explanation and that the singular-plural mismatches can all be attributed to “style”.
That said, perhaps there is something that we can learn from the use of the singular “Re’eh”. Let’s turn the calendar back by three weeks to Tisha b’Av. Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik tries to characterize the customs of mourning over the Beit HaMikdash by comparing them with the customs of mourning over a loved one who has died. Rabbi Soloveichik notes one critical difference between the two: The period of mourning for the Beit HaMikdash begins on the seventeenth day of the month of Tamuz, three weeks before Tisha b’Av, when we stop shaving, listening to music, and holding weddings. Twelve days later, on the first day of the month of Av, things get ratcheted up a notch: We stop eating meat and we refrain from showering. The mourning rises an additional level during the week in which Tisha b’Av falls (shavu’a she’chal bo) and it reaches its crescendo on the eve of Tisha b’Av, when we may not even sit on a stool or greet our friend. Generally speaking, the closer we get to Tisha b’Av, the more severe our mourning becomes. The customs of mourning over the loss of a loved one are reversed: The most stringent period is the first seven days (shiva) after death. Certain mourning restrictions are extended for another twenty-three days (sheloshim) and the rest of the restrictions are relaxed after one year. Rabbi Soloveichik explains that when a person dies, his relatives are naturally overcome with emotion. As time elapses, they become more inured to their situation and so the customs of mourning are gradually eased. Mourning over the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the subsequent exile of the Jewish People is much less natural. It is difficult to cry and beat one’s chest with anguish over a catastrophe that occurred nearly two thousand years ago. In order to encourage mourning, the sense of loss must be built up over time by gradually increasing the restrictions.
A similar example of “ramping up” appears only three weeks after Tisha b’Av. The primary motif of the High Holidays is repentance – a Divine gift that enables a human to extricate himself from a seemingly irreversible trajectory and to reinvent himself. High Holiday repentance begins at the beginning of the month of Elul, when Sephardic Jews begin saying Selichot (penitential poems) and Ashkenazic Jews begin adding Chapter 27 of Tehillim to their daily prayers. Near the end of month, the Ashkenazim join the fray and begin reciting Selichot. On Rosh Hashanah, the repentance motif becomes more pronounced, followed by the “Ten Days of Repentance”, in which Selichot are extended and during which many people take upon themselves halachic stringencies so as to distance themselves from sin. Repentance comes to a climax on Yom Kippur, specifically during the Ne’ila prayer, recited in its waning hours. Again, the reason for this gradual increase in the extent of penitence is a result of it not being a natural act. People become so used to sinning that sinning becomes almost instinctive. It becomes part and parcel of their persona. Judaism attacks this “inertia of sin” by gradually raising our awareness, by progressively modifying our environment to one in which sin is seen as something alien, a disease that must be cured.
The patient reader is asking himself, “Yeah, but what about ‘Re’eh’?” To answer this question, we must first return to Tisha b’Av. On the eve of Tisha b’Av, at the climax of our national mourning, we read the Book of Lamentations in which Jeremiah offers a graphic prophecy of the impending destruction of Jerusalem. In the first chapter of Lamentations, the word “Re’eh” is repeated no less than three times. First, Jeremiah foresees the Jewish People crying out [Lamentations 1:9] “See (Re’eh), O G-d, my misery; How the enemy jeers!” This is followed by [Lamentations 1:11] “See (Re’eh), O G-d, and behold, How abject I have become!” And finally [Lamentations 1:20] “See (Re’eh), O G-d, the distress I am in! My heart is in anguish”. Referring back to last week’s lesson, the word “see” means to understand, to become aware, to empathize. The Jewish People are pleading with G-d to save them from the living hell that their lives have become. Yet their plea goes unanswered and for a good reason: their living hell is a direct result of their sins. Why should G-d heed their cries if they are deflecting responsibility for their deeds?
Nevertheless, something changes the third and final time the Jewish People ask G-d to “see”. The verse continues [Lamentations 1:20]: “I know how wrong I was to disobey”. Apparently, the people have begun to comprehend that they bear the responsibility for their predicament. Indeed, the Book of Lamentations [5:21] ends with the words “Take us back, O G-d, to Yourself, and let us come back; Renew our days as of old!”
There is still one piece missing from our puzzle. Until a person understands the source of his sin, he will inevitably return to sinning. This is where the first verse of Parashat Re’eh comes in. Moses tells us [Devarim 11:26-28] “See (Re’eh), this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of G-d that I enjoin upon you this day, and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of G-d, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day”. We must see, we must understand, we must become aware, that we can become sufficiently worthy for G-d to take us back only after we take responsibility for our actions. The “Re’eh” of Parashat Re’eh is the precondition for the “Re’eh” of Lamentations.
Parashat Re’eh always falls out immediately before or on the first day of the month of Elul. The word “Re’eh” marks the beginning of an arduous forty-day process of repentance. Before we can approach G-d and beg Him to take us back, we must understand that our destiny is in our own hands.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.
 This is true for Jews of Ashkenazic descent. Sephardic Jews begin their mourning period much later.
 This beautiful translation comes from the JPS translation found on the Sefaria web site.