Deuteronomy’s straightforward principle of reward and punishment is presented to the Children of Israel at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), in binary fashion: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if ye shall hearken unto the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if ye shall not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known” (Deut.11:26-28).
Regarding these verses, the sages ask, “It is written, ‘Behold, I….’ But why? Because it is also written, ‘I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse’ [Deut. 30:19]. Lest Israel might say, ‘Since God has given us two paths to choose – life or death – are we thus free to choose which one to take?’ the Torah thus says, ‘therefore choose life’ [Deut. 30:19]” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 53).
The two paths presented here may give the initial impression that God is offering his children the opportunity to freely choose between the accursed road and the blessed one, while he for his part simply reveals to them what will be the result of the choices they might make. Ostensibly, it appears as if God is not telling them which path to prefer. However, the midrash claims, if we read this verse in light of another one that appears later in Deuteronomy, we discover that God, while offering two options, is actually recommending one: “therefore choose life” – that is, choose the blessed path, which is identified with the choice of life.
What is the meaning of the midrash’s question, “But why?”? After all, the text offers readers a simple set of alternatives: If you obey God’s laws, you will be rewarded, and if you disobey them, you will be punished. Moreover, even the interpretive approach taken here is puzzling. One can clearly see in this week’s portion that the cursed path would be a bad choice, and the blessed path a good one. Why would anyone feel the need to choose the cursed path instead of the blessed one, and in so doing incur a life of difficulties and constant need?
The midrash places a hypothetical statement on the tongues of its readers, “Lest Israel might say, ‘Since God has given us two paths to choose – life or death – are we thus free to choose which one to take?’” Nonetheless, the use of that statement strikes one as little more than a rhetorical exercise, for what reason would a person have for deciding to choose the path of death?
The midrash’s question, however, is more serious than it may first appear. Moses presents Israel with the Torah’s principle of reward and punishment, according to which people’s actions have a direct bearing on their fate; this is all managed from heaven as per a predetermined system of ethics and justice. The inherent problem with this system, irrespective of the way it is presented (especially in the sages’ era), is that it does not ostensibly work. How is one to deal with a situation where the promised reward never seems to come, and the promised penalty for disobedience appears to tarry?
The midrash explains its question with a parable: “A traveler comes to a junction where there is a fork in the road. Two paths lie ahead: One of them begins as a plain but ends up as a patch of thorns, while the other begins as a patch of thorns but ends up as a plain. The traveler tells other travelers: ‘You see this path which begins as a plain? After two or three steps of walking in the plain, you will suddenly find yourself in a patch of thorns. You see this path which begins as a patch of thorns? After two or three steps of walking through thorns, you will suddenly find yourself in a plain. Similarly, Moses tells Israel: You see the wicked, who apparently enjoy a successful life? After two or three days of enjoying success in this world, they will be punished in the next world, as it is written, ‘For there will be no future to the evil man….’ [Proverbs 24:20], ‘behold the tears of such as were oppressed[, and they had no comforter]….’ [Ecclesiastes 4:1], ‘The fool foldeth his hands together’ [Eccles. 4:5] and ‘The way of the wicked is as darkness’ [Prov. 4:19].
“You see the righteous who apparently experience hardship in this world? After two or three days of experiencing hardship in this world, they will enjoy a happy life in the next world, as it is written, ‘to do thee good at thy latter end’ [Deut. 8:16], “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof” [Eccles. 7:8], ‘For I know the thoughts that I think toward you” [Jeremiah 29:11] and ‘But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn’ [Prov. 4:18]” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 53).
The traveler in the parable is Moses, and his audience the sages themselves, in whose generation the wicked who disobey the Torah’s law appear to prosper while the righteous seem to suffer hardships. Thus, the seemingly hypothetical statement, “Lest Israel might say: Since God has given us two paths to choose – life or death – are we thus free to choose whichever path to take?” is not hypothetical at all, but rather a totally realistic possibility.
In the first verses of Parashat Re’eh, Moses shows his audience that ostensible success and sorrow are merely temporary situations and that, after two or three steps, what appears to be a way of thorns is in truth a plain and what appears to be a plain is actually a way of thorns.
The midrash reads the positive and straightforward picture presented in Deuteronomy, according to which good deeds lead to a blessed life while bad deeds lead to an accursed one, and sees it as a revolutionary statement whose purpose is to reveal the true justice that is concealed under the life of exile, full of injustice and suffering, which the sages are now experiencing. Moses’ address to the nation in Deuteronomy is transformed from a demand to walk the path of righteousness to a lecture on the gap between revealed reality and its hidden meaning.
The traveler who comes to a fork in the road will naturally want to choose the smooth plain over the thorny path. However, according to the sages, the meaning of Moses’ words to Israel calls for the precise reverse: The traveler must choose the thorny path – that is, the seemingly difficult life of the righteous who obey God’s laws – over the plain, which represents the seemingly easy and happy life of the wicked who disobey God’s laws.
The meaning of the midrash’s question, “It is written, ‘Behold, I….’ But why?” is that what appears at first glance is not a true reflection of reality. When reality ceases to play according to the rules of the literary game, the text is transformed from a description of apparent reality to an instrument whose function is to remove the mask from the face of that apparent reality and to reveal its true meaning, which is concealed in the text.
The midrash continues with a description of the traveler’s perspective: Rabbi Joshua, son of Karcha, said, “This point can be explained with a parable: A king invites guests to a feast, and one whom the king particularly loves is among them. The king hints that his good friend should take a delectable portion, but the friend cannot decide what to take. Therefore, the king says to his friend, ‘I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go’ [Psalms 32:8]. Seeing that his friend is still undecided, the king grabs hold of his hand and places it on the delectable portion that he wants him to take, as it is written, ‘O Lord, the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup’ [Psalms 16:5]” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 53).
Rabbi Joshua shifts the focus from Moses’ role to the traveler’s confusion. Travelers do not know – in truth, they can never know – what will be the reward for their actions. Therefore, God must choose the delectable portion for them, although that portion may not give the appearance of being delectable. He does so by means of the text in Deuteronomy. Turning the book’s dogmatic concepts inside out, the midrash lays the foundations for an “underdog logic” that denies revealed reality and interprets it in a manner that is the reverse of apparent reality. In this respect, the midrash conducts a comprehensive reduction of Deuteronomy, because the harmony it depicts describes in effect only what is revealed when one pushes aside the curtain of trauma from the face of a shattered world.