The “Angel Who-Knows” R’eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey…but turn away from the path…and follow other gods, whom you have not known.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
The Hebrew verb l’da’at, like it’s common translation,”to know,” conveys different kinds of knowing depending on its context. We can know facts, know a person, or know something deeply in our heart and soul.
We might wonder, then, what is meant in Parashat R’eih, by “gods whom you have not known” – asher lo yadatem, and what it might mean to “know God.”
Parashat R’eih suggests that curses – i.e., the troubles that afflict us in life, the “other gods” we follow – are the result of a “not-knowing.” This implies that, conversely, the blessings given to us by God are found in the power of knowing God – i.e., our consciousness aimed at a high faith, trust, or confidence. The curses – the blessings we try to evade our entire lives – haunt us in condemnation of what we don’t have and keep us from recognizing that which shows us our direction or path in life. Quite often, that path is made known to us only after a choice is made, not at the outset.
So, how can we defend ourselves from what we don’t know, or are unable to discern? How can we fill our lives with blessings if knowing itself does not exist and not-knowing is an integral part of what life looks like?
The Hebrew language gives us two gifts that hint at how we might think about the meaning of knowledge or knowing. The modern world, which exists within the ‘now,’ whose words we live and breathe, reminds us that knowledge is the insight, the proof, or the fact. The unshakable essence of wisdom that seeks to cling to every bit of information and tries to summon it and declare that it is science.
In contrast, in the biblical world, the one remembered or forgotten, the one in the core of the Torah portion, reminds us of another meaning: knowledge as proximity – one soul touching another. Ancient memories make us look back from Genesis to Deuteronomy, just like the Angel-Who-Knows. Those memories ask us to bear the following in mind: that l’da’at, “to know,” suggests an intimate relationship, and also means to give life, to continue the creation, to be a person, and to be on the spectrum of creation: “Now the man (adam) knew his wife Eve, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1).
The great Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote of the Angel-Who-Knows, as a spiritual figure that is at work in the soul of every individual. The angel stores their findings in the private museum in each person’s soul. The Angel-Who-Knows silently accompanies the soul among the displays that are suddenly revealed, holding its hand gently, and knowing all too well that this is an awful moment when a person encounters everything that they discarded into the recycling bin of repression.
Rabbi Nachman teaches that there are worlds that can be known only when despair is at its peak. There, in the mysteries of the despair, exists an Angel-Who-Knows and is on a mission to salvage memories that were deliberately tossed into the depths of knowing, that want to be swallowed up and disappear forever in the cracks that consciousness cannot penetrate. Through the invisible crevices, the angel passes with all its loyal assistants. They salvage objects, memories, longings, and crumpled newspaper clippings. They restore notes and fragments from the fires, addresses of lost homes, or attach tiny pieces of numbers that have been erased, carefully documenting the history that has vanished. On one shelf, they arrange the good and the bad next to each other, the kindnesses with the sins, the compassions with the injustices. They work silently, like meticulous archivists of the chronicles of time.
In this way, with the hidden gifts of the Angel-Who-Knows, not-knowing becomes knowing.
We are here because of “angels who knew.”
Many of us here today were given life by “angels-who-knew,” who helped us to survive horrific times when volcanoes of human hatred erupted that sought to polish the earth with evil. These people knew to look deep ahead into history, and to look up and discover the covenant in the heavens, spread out like a rainbow of colors – a silk embroidery of hope in clouds. Those “Angels who know” are the same people who acted out of an old, clear memory to be there for each other, and for us, and lead a life of faith and creativity, and hold in their hearts the knowledge of proximity and wisdom. They gave us life, simply because they knew.
Although throughout history people have known bitter tragedies of ruined lives, beyond the fires and the destruction that penetrated the essence of humanity, their eyes saw the horizon that opened the past and the depth of the future before them.
Parashat R’eih reminds us that we have a choice between the blessing and the curse, between a life of hope and faith, and a life in which the choice has already been made.
Like those who live in that exposed and broken reality, we gently whisper, to them, to us: “Choose life so you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).