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How do you know if it’s a blessing or a danger? That shiny new car – that you cannot afford, or is a gas guzzler, that lovely piece of cake, but you’ve had two already? That glass of wine -but you’ve had enough? That attractive person smiling at you: are they trying to sell you something you don’t need?  Is looking enough to know? Then how?  Well, we always will begin by looking!

What’s real, what illusion? Vision:  It can either mean insight to truth, or an imagining. The word “television” means seeing at a distance, and my son tells me there are screens with 8000 pixels per inch, beyond what the eye can see – what’s going on in that beyond? And is the existence on the screen real? “Seeing is believing” I’ve heard said, but in truth, what we see on the surface is not real. What about those times when something’s right there but you just don’t see it. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously flawed. Check out National Geographic’s “Brain Games” which features magicians playing fast and loose with our “realities” by directing our attention or inattention.  The Torah portion this week is named “Re-eh” meaning see because it begins with that word!  “See, I set before you this day blessing and curse”, says God.  Blessings if you follow the Mitzvot, curse if you do not… and to make the choice visually clear and dramatic, the Israelites are to set up the blessings on a green, lush mountain, and the curses on a barren one. God challenges us to choose well. But it isn’t always obvious, or easy to look beyond the surface!  The text could have just said: I set before you this day, what is added, what is God trying to tell us by beginning with “Re-eh, see”? Be careful! the text warns many times “guard and listen” “don’t be lured” by idol worshipers, dream diviners, false prophets, by loved ones luring you astray. Guard and listen. follow the Mitzvot!

The first Mitzvah the Israelites got as a nation, before we even left Egypt was that of Honoring the new month, in this case Aviv, spring’s month. This coming week Tuesday and Wednesday begin a new month  – the month of Elul which leads us to our journey approaching the High Holy days, our inner journey of teshuvah, an upward journey to finding joy and love. Elul is the month whose very name is an acronym for love, from the song of songs: Ani L’dodi v’dodi li. Of course, the word “month” is based upon “moon” and the Jewish month begins with the new, or barely visible moon. Her light changes nightly and predictably, and the celebration of the moon who rules the night has long been connected with women, and in Jewish tradition is a holiday which celebrates women!

A story of the moon from the legendary town of Chelm, home of the infamous wise fools. The townspeople loved the times when the moon shone brightly in the heavens. In the beautiful glow of the evenings  their homes filled with happiness and they were content. Children listened, all responded with kindness. But as the moon’s light ebbed, gloom and sadness seemed to settle upon them all.  “This just won’t do”, they said. “We must figure out a way to keep joyful even on the dark nights,” proclaimed the leaders.  “If only we could catch the moon,” said Yossele the tailor “we would have it, and could release light into those dark nights!” But how? the people wondered. Yankel the tailor mused, “Last week I was sipping a bowl of borsht. As I ate, I noticed that in the bowl was the light of the moon! Perhaps if we had a large enough bowl we could catch it!”  And all the brilliant folks of Chelm enthusiastically nodded – what a great Idea, they proclaimed! And so it was determined to try to trap the moon. In every home pots of borsht simmered.  Someone donated a bathtub, others contributed boards of lumber, and Moshe the carpenter directed the volunteers to construct the world’s largest soup tureen.  One night as the moon shone full and bright, the townspeople brought all their borsht and dumped it into what must have been the world’s largest soup bowl.  The moon light shimmered. “ooh”, admired the townfolk, and then several of them lifted the lid and “crash” covered it tightly. At that exact moment a cloud came to obscure the moon.  “We’ve done it!” they rejoiced, “we own the moon light”. Never again need we endure dreary depressing nights!” And they danced and rejoiced all the long night!  But the next night, as the sun sank beyond the horizon of Chelm and darkness spread, the moon rose once again.  “Treachery!” thought the townspeople. “Someone must have let the moon out of the pot!”  And so the search was afoot, house to house, all were interrogated as to their whereabouts during the day of the theft. And one by one, each denied the deed, had alibis – working in the field, studying in the classroom, caring for the shop. Finally the geniuses of Chelm, with no other suspects, reluctantly knocked on their beloved Rabbi’s door. “Excuse us Rabbi, but could it be you…?”  “Yes it was I who let the moon out of the pot,” sighed the Rabbi.  A murmer of surprise spread through the people, of disbelief!  “But we worked so hard, why would you do this, Rabbi?” “Why? I will tell you: because there are some things which we enjoy when they are ours completely,” began the Rabbi. “Like my shoes!” Cried Yossle, “Like my candlesticks,” cried Breyna. “That’s right!” the Rabbi explaine  “But their are other things that we cannot own, that we can only enjoy by sharing them,” continued the Rabbi. “Like Love?”, asked Asher, “and hugs,” offered Miri, “and joy”, shouted Aviva! “Yes, like joy and hugs and love!” responded the Rabbi. “And the moon?” asked Shmuel?  “Yes, the moon” Replied the Rabbi. “But now we will forever have to have dark, scary, gloomy nights each month” “what on earth shall we do?”  The Rabbi stroked his beard. “It is true” he said, “that we will all have some gloomy, dark days., it’s part of life.” But we can help each other through these dark times,” he continued, “by sharing something comforting and fortifying during these difficult times!”  “Like what?” they asked. “Like Soup!” answered the Rabbi.  And so it became a tradition in Chelm. On those darkest of nights, neighbors would knock on each others doors and share a bowl of borsht, and perhaps a hug.

What is real, what illusion? It’s an illusion that the moon creates light or is  gone when it’s dark just as it’s illusion that the moon can be captured in a soup tureen. But you can feel the tide, the moon’s pull. Illusion – that it’s possible to have only joyful times by grabbing and holding on to reflections and shadows, but real that you can share the soup you’ve captured it in.  It is also an illusion that while walking through New York on the way to your concert or show, that the homeless person on the street is invisible. Should you give them a dollar? How do you know if it’s a blessing or a curse? Re-eh continues, “if there is a needy person among you. do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin…give readily and have no regrets…for there will always be needy ones in your land..” which is kind of sad, but true.

So how do you know if it’s blessing or a ‘curse” – where can we look for guidance? “Follow my Mitzvot”, is God’s advice in parashat Re-eh for how choose blessing. I learned this week through Reb Arthur that Mitzvah can be translated “connectedness” If you connect deeply to a friend, or a beggar or to a tree in the forest or bird in the sky, or a child, then love commands you to care.  And the new month can help us know:  Elul, “Ani L’Dodi,,,I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Truth is that by listening and opening up to, and embracing one another we can find our way. Perhaps the only way to avoid the illusion is to see with our hearts. from a song I wrote last week at the conference:

And if we build bridges of Love, And if we build them heart to heart;

Then Eden blooms again; and many waters cannot quench this love of ours:

And then we will choose blessing as we count our way through the new month to Rosh Hashanah – the new year. Not just counting our blessings, but counting WITH blessings, day by day, moment by moment. “And if we choose rightly and often enough then the broken fragments of our world will be restored to wholeness” (Chaim Stern, Gates of Prayer)

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