I. Change the World Today!

“Reality does not exist on its own, in and for itself, but only in an historical relationship with the men who modify it.” Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

“‘See, I have given over to you’- …the righteous with their words create new heavens and new earths, as the verse suggests: See, what I have done- I have given over to you that creating aspect of myself so that with your teachings you can create new realities of heaven and earth. Understand this.” Degel Mahane Ephraim, Perashat Re’eh


This week’s perasha begins with a resounding cry (Devarim 11:26): “See! I am presenting before you all today, a blessing and a curse! A blessing such that you shall keep my commandments…and a curse should you not hearken unto my commands and veer from the way set before you today…” The commentators note several interesting points as they dissect virtually every word in this passage; we will note several. The repetition of the word “today” is of note, but this connotation of immediacy is made more curious by the fact that the actual “blessing and curse mountain happening” is not meant to occur at this time, but rather, much later, after entering the land and reaching Mts. Gerizim and Eval. The Kedushat Levi assumes that this set of verses is thus meant to be read atemporally; the blessing referred to here is not linked to those to be presented at Gerizim, but rather any time the commandments are heard, so to speak, that in itself, that relationship with Gd established as a result of hearing Gd’s voice through the commandments, is its own reward.

Are there temporal readings of this passage, that take “today” to point to a moment in time? For the sake of completion, let us start backwards. The Meor V’Shemesh points this verse back towards the beginning of time, to the mystical moment of Creation. He explains that the first letters of the verse, Reeh Anochi Noten Lifnechem Hayom, add up to 288, which correspond to the 288 sparks Gd wove into creation, according to the Lurianic Kabbala, for humanity to recover and redeem. This, of course, is accomplished by living according to Gd’s word.

Is there a way to read this atemporal passage in a more timely fashion, where “today” might actually mean today? In order to do so, one must explain what is indeed being set before us “today” if it is not referring only to the Gerizim and Eval episode. The Sefat Emet is very specific in his reading of the emphasis on the word “today”. He explains, one might think that one is tied very strongly to the past. Sins I’ve committed in the past, accumulated karma, all these should hinder one’s capacity for total self transformation. Mistakes of the past must, one thinks, affect one’s ability to hear Gd’s voice in the present. Hence, this verse responds: Hear! (The Ohev Yisrael, with whom we will deal more fully later, insists that this first word in the verse is a command). Gd sets out the possibility of relationship today, despite the errors of yesterday. The voice can be fully heard and actualized because Gd provides this opportunity anew at every moment. Differing from Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, we are not blown into the future against our will, face contorted and towards the past, rather, as Benjamin would have put it, the Sefat Emet “establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time”.

The reading which shoots the now most utterly with Messianic time and whose reading most interestingly also predates another Frankfurt School thinker in this context, is that of the Or Penei Moshe (to my mind one of the most original and radical Hasidic thinkers. I don’t know why his work is not more widely circulated). His reading stresses this pivotal “today” repeated twice in our passage. This “today” is doubly articulated as is the double articulation in Gd’s voice- blessing and curse.

Before proceeding with his reading, I’d like to sidetrack a bit and talk about Ernst Bloch, who most articulates this double articulation within critical theory, to the point that he refers to criticism as being “Janus faced”. Bloch differed from the other Frankfurt School theoreticians in that he felt that the Marxist derived social criticism of others like Adorno, always finding hegemony, reification, and exploitation, only represented half the story, a “half-enlightenment”. A proper critical approach to society would also recognize the other side, the positive ideology reflected in culture, the strivings toward a better world as represented in dreams, literature, art, even advertising and marketing. By recognizing what humanity conceives of as the “better life”, one is already a step closer to the positive “real-objective possibility” which could be actualized in such a society. Thus, Bloch is grouped along with Benjamin in the category of “messianic Marxists”, as opposed to the hammer wielding “litvaks” like Althusser and Adorno. Relevant to our discussion of “today” is this summation statement in The Principle of Hope:

Possibility no longer resides in a ready-made ontology of being as that-which-has-been-up-to-now, but in an ontology which is to be forever refounded on the being-of-that-which-is-not-yet, an ontology which discovers the future even in the past in the totality of nature…The category of real possibility is the category of that space which opens up before the movement of matter as a dialectical process: it is the specific property of that dimension of reality which is situated in front of its unfolding.

The Or Penei Moshe, speculating on what was given “today” if the verse is not referring to the Gerizim episode later to occur, suggests that an approach to life and Gd is given in this verse. The technique is to live the day as though that were the only day given to live. This, he explains, in itself, contains the double articulation of blessing and curse. The righteous, who would in such a frame of mind, not be distracted by any other matter than achieving the upmost in human perfection, would thus, by result of this mind experiment, succeed in actualizing and perfecting themselves and the world. The wicked, who would be thrown into a nihilistic state of defeat because of fear combined with the finality of attainment of pleasure (Similarity to Nietzche’s mind experiment regarding the eternal return is interesting in many regards).

What spoke to me in the OPM’s reading was the use of “hayom”, “today”, as the pivot and double facet. His defence of how one thought experiment could lead to two radically different outcomes is built on the possibilities in the word “today”. He cites BT Nedarim 8:, in which at the end of days Gd “unsheathes” the sun; the consequent light acts as a salve to the righteous and a punishment to the wicked at the same time. The transformative power of “today” is also supported by BT Sanhedrin 98., where the Mashiach is to come “today” if only we would hearken unto Gd’s word. Once again, we have the blinding power of the Good as symbolized by the light. Perhaps “hayom”, “today”, carries within it the aspect of day, as suggested by the OPM, in a more than connotative manner. Every day lived completely contains within it the possibility of utter world transformation, a totally new world, as seen by the linkage to these two Talmudic sources. Here is a remarkable parallel in Bloch (cited by Kellner):

The unconscious of psychoanalysis is therefore, as we can see, never a Not-Yet-Conscious, an element of progressions, it consists rather of regressions. Accordingly, even the process of making this unconscious conscious only clarifies What-Has-Been; i.e., there is nothing new in the Freudian unconscious. This became even clearer when C.G. Jung, the psychoanalytic fascist reduced the libido and its unconscious contents entirely to the primeval. According to him, exclusively phylogenetic primeval memories or primeval fantasies exist in the unconscious, falsely designated ‘archetypes’; and all wishful images also go back into this night (italics mine), only suggest prehistory. Jung even considers the night to be so colorful that consciousness pales beside it; as a spurner of light, he devalues consciousness…

Thus, to the analysts, the unconscious is all in the past, there is no progress or development possible there. In the OPM, however, correct hearing “today’, brings us into the light of the new day, into a now moment, a moment lived intensely; a world capable of transforming now- this is possible to those who would hear, those who would stand in the light of Gd’s commandments. The Ohev Yisrael’s reading fits in nicely here- he explains that the initial term “Re’eh”, “See” or “Look”, is a command, the command to devekut, to communion, for where one looks, that is where one “is”. If one achieves this, then at that moment one achieves the state of “anochi” (the next word in the verse), which is usually translated as “I”, but he choosed to read the gematria, which equals the numerical value of “kiseh”, which means “chair.” So the verse would read, “See where you are at in relation to the Divine experience.” As a result of one’s relationship with Gd, one becomes the “seat” of divine outflow. This double articulation, this being linked both to the place you are at as well as being at the same time linked to the greatest of positive potentialities, can go in either direction; one’s being in the world can bring about positive or negative change, as we’ve seen. Bloch, in his essay “Formative Education, Engineering Form, Ornament”, explains how people and their environment are interrelated; the man makes the world, and the world makes the man. As his example, he explains:

…The very way in which a chair causes us to sit has- at least at times- an effect on our general posture… for example, the more approachable and gregarious personality is expressed in the abundance of seats offered in his rooms…

In summation, we see that every day presents a new opportunity for recreating the world in a more perfected state. Sometimes, one can transcend even the errors of the past and reach towards the light, towards a new and better world, and this can be achieved by realizing that the situation must change at this very moment, no more human suffering can be tolerated for another day, for the alternative to this state of blessing is a woefully accursed state. If this is not clear from a theoretical perspective, then read the daily news from the Middle East.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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