Re’eh: Is an Explanation an Excuse?

Re’eh: Is an Explanation an Excuse?

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
Ya gotta understand:
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us outta hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks.

In “Westside Story,” members of a street gang use a variety of creative explanations for their criminal behavior: their dad beat their mom, their parents smoked marijuana and refused to share it with them, etc.

The truth is, we all make excuses for our behavior.  When confronted with a complaint, we tend to feel judged, and often give some explanation to show why we aren’t as bad as we think the other person thinks.  These explanations are, of course, true, but the problem is that we are using them as an excuse.

There is always an explanation for any behavior: we were born with certain weaknesses, we picked up bad habits from our parents’ and friends’ example, or from tv or radio.

I can always find out where my child learned a bad word, the challenge is for them to unlearn it.

The Torah portion starts out:
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:  the blessing, that you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse, if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God… (Deut 11:26-28)

The mishnah, Maimonides, and countless other rabbis have reaffirmed that Judaism is based on the idea of free choice–what would be the point of a Torah is there was not free choice?  We are all born with certain dispositions, we have inclinations, we pick up bad habits.  We need to understand our behavior without excusing it; we need to understand it in order to improve it.

This week, we welcome the month of Elul, marking the beginning of the 40 Days of Teshuvah, the preparatory period leading up to Yom Kippur.  Over these days, I invite you to explore what excuses you make, and to convert them into opportunities for personal growth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David