Right now, somewhere in the world, there is a university ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ course where the professor, thinking themselves quite clever is posing the following ethical dilemma: If you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler before he ever came to power? This question has become almost a stock component of philosophical speculation, and of course, it has its own interesting history. The ‘Kill Baby Hitler Conundrum’ actually was first articulated in a Science-Fiction short story published in 1941. Yes, 1941. Before anyone knew exactly the extent of the evil, Hitler’s wibby-wobbly time-travel-induced death was already a matter for speculation.
The story, aptly, is called ‘I Killed Hitler,’ and it appeared in that year’s Weird Science. It was written by a man named Roger Sherman Hoar and it takes a somewhat unexpected turn. In the story, an American painter called up for the draft goes back in time to kill a young Hitler at the age of eleven. Time travel being what it is, things don’t work out quite as expected. By the end of the story, Hitler’s assassin has himself, through a series of twists and turns, assumed the dictator’s place. The story, it seems, is a cautionary tale against seeing the past as a realm through which we can rectify the flaws of the present.
Unfortunately, time travel as envisioned by much of science fiction is an impossibility. We do know that time can be bent, altered, and in certain conditions, can appear very different than we are used to. Yet one constant remains: we cannot, under any condition, change the past.
Our fascination with time travel may seem far from where we last left Moses, mid-speech. Yet, the words that begin this week’s parashah have a great deal in common with the Oedipal twist of 1941’s “I Killed Hitler.’ The first verse, Deuteronomy 11:26, reads: “Look! Today I am putting in front of you blessing and curse.” From today, we have before us a blessing and a curse. Now of course, as Moses goes on to explain, the promised blessing is secured through observing God’s laws, and the curse as a result of shunning them.
The biblical commentator, Ramban [Pérush al haTorah, Devarim 11:29], points out something interesting about this verse. He says that we should read it as: “For I am putting in front of you one path that leads to blessing and one path that leads to curse. And the reason it says ‘in front of you’ is to clarify for you that the path you take is your choice.”
In this way, what Moses is telling us is that we stand at a fork in the road. We can go one way, towards God and Torah and the Jewish community, and find blessing in it. We can go another way, and find curses in it.
Now, it is really fair to say that everything in life is either a blessing or a curse? Is there no middle-ground? We make choices every day; Some are small and seemingly insignificant and some are incredibly important. Does each choice yield either blessing or curse with no mix in between? Every year when I come across this verse it seems like a very oversimplified duality. Blessing or curse. Holy or profane. But - perhaps there’s more to it.
One biblical commentator, known as Seforno, embraces this apparently extreme dualism. He writes [Devarim 11:26]:
Re’eh - Behold - pay good attention, so that you will not behave like most others who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground. Rather, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse, two opposite extremes. The blessing is an extreme in that it provides you with more than you need, whereas the curse is another extreme, making sure that you have less than your basic needs. You have the choice of both before you; all you have to do is make a choice.
Seforno suggests that the extremes presented to us are a call to never indulge in mediocrity. We must not only be good, we must be extremely good. Perhaps this is a lot to ask; But, after all, doesn’t the Torah often ask quite a bit of us?
So this verse which opens our parashah seems to have two lessons for us. The first, I think, is this: the choices before us are before us, meaning, in front of us. In Hebrew the word for before/in front of is lifné, a contraction of el (to) and panim (face). Thus to say that the choice between blessing and curse is before us, means that it is one which we will face. From this moment, to the next, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year, and perhaps to our next lifetime - we will be faced with choice after choice, drawing us toward either blessing or curse.
The second lesson we can learn from this is that to live a life of blessing requires commitment. We cannot be half-blessed or half-cursed. Although we live in a world in which we often aim to see nuance and subtlety, some things may actually be binaries. Perhaps we must choose one: blessing or curse. Seforno reminded us that we have to pay attention, we have to be careful, we have to look at the path in front of us in order to know which it is. That struggle, to discern which path will lead us toward blessing, although difficult, is far better than always trying to find a middle ground. It is harder and potentially more hazardous, but, as we are promised, may be far more rewarding as well.
The Midrash [Sifré 53:1:2 / Tanhuma Re’eh 3] makes what I think is a beautiful analogy to help us understand this choice with which we are faced. Imagine the following scene with me: you are standing on a woodland path, walking forward. It is the rare British summer day where everything is peaceful and warm and sunny. As you walk, the path you are on reaches a fork. First, look to the left: there you see the path unencumbered, cleared of all debris. A bit beyond where you can see, it bends. Now look at the fork on the right: there you can see that the path has lots of thorn-bushes, some of which have overgrown the banks and intrude on the path. It looks like it would be much slower going, and potentially hazardous with all the debris blocking the way. Yet, it too curves away from you beyond your sight. You have to make a choice based on what you can see. What do you do?
The midrash goes on tell us that these two paths are just like the blessing and the curse we read about. However, the critical information is the very part that is absent. It explains that our left-hand path, the one that begins totally clear actually turns that corner into very dangerous terrain. Beyond the bend the brambles and thorns that you cannot see are far worse than what’s visible on the right-hand path. Meanwhile, that right-hand path, which appears hazardous and difficult, curves around the bend to a beautiful and clear ramble through some lovely countryside.
Standing at the crossroads, at the fork, as we were, we cannot know where the path will go, we can only know what is in front of us. Yet, what the Torah is asking us is precisely that: to see beyond what appears and to choose the path of blessing. The path that leads towards blessing may be more difficult - it may involve commitments and restrictions and limitations that feel like thorns, but just around the bend it leads to somewhere beautiful. Meanwhile, the path which seems easy, which asks little of us, may lead us into danger and oblivion.
Our Sages tell us in the Talmud [Bavli Tamid 32a] that one who is wise is ‘one who can see the future.’ They don’t mean clairvoyancy of course! They mean that wisdom is about being able to see beyond what is just in front of us. Wisdom is being able to look at the forked paths with which we are faced and know that the one that begins in brambles may end in a serene and clear journey. The first word of our parashah tells us to re’eh ; It is a command - “Look!” “See!” “Behold!” Look - you have before you a choice, between blessing and curse. Between the easy road and the hard road. The only choice we can make is to move forward, on one or the other. It is not just the only choice we can make, it is the only choice there is to make. We cannot go backwards. We cannot retreat into the forest from which we came or go back in time and remove a great evil from the world. We cannot, as the protagonist of ‘I Killed Hitler’ discovers, alter the path or the choices we have already made. All we can do is move forward, fork after fork, looking at what is before us and choosing: blessing or curse, blessing or curse, blessing or curse.
I want to leave you today with the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, whose book "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared" should be required reading in the period prior to the High Holy Days which we are now entering. He writes:
Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter … We learn a number of things from this. We learn that this business of choosing good over evil, life over death, is precisely a matter of life and death. Our lives quite literally depend on it.