Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism

 

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), a Jewish RussianAmerican linguist, has had a decisive influence on literary theorists for the last 60 years. He writes (in “Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement”, in T.A.Sebeok, ed. “Style in Language”, Cambridge, Mass. 1960) that all acts of communication can be determined by six different functions of language. In other words, we can distinguish between six basic functions of language, which are often intertwined one with another. Let us review the four main functions:

The “referential” function; includes “regular” sentences which have an informational content, for example: “This Dvar Tora is boring.” Here is an affirmative statement about something, a declarative sentence which is liable to a truth test.

The “emotive” function; aims a direct expression of the speaker’s attitude toward what he is speaking about and tends to produce an impression of a certain emotion. E.g. “Oy!”, “Wow!” etc’.

The “conative” function (from the latin word “conor” = to strive for, to aim at); finds its purest grammatical expression in the imperative, e.g.: “Drink!”, “Close the door!” etc’. In contrast to declarative sentences, imperative ones are not liable to a truth test.

The “phatic” function (from the greek word “phatos” = speech); primarily serves to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication and to check whether the channel works, in order to attract the intention of the other side or to confirm his continued attention. E.g. “Isn’t it?”, “Hello?”, “you know” etc’. Jakobson notes that this is also the first function acquired by infants, since they are prone to communicate before being able to send or receive informative messages.

Our Parsha starts with the sentence: “Re’eh – See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you listen to the commandments of Hashem your God, which I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of Hashem your God…” (Devarim 11, 26-28)

What is the meaning of the first word: Re’eh – See? What is there to see? Let us try and examine this word through the different linguistic functions we presented above. We’ll go from the fourth to the first function.

Re’eh as a phatic function. Moshe is trying to establish the “communication channel” before he actually starts talking about issues with content. According to this function, “Re’eh” would be parallel to the English “Well”. The Avi Ezer hints to that usage of the word Re’eh by quoting grammar scholars who said that “this is a form of the beginning of a sentence”. He is also referring to the story of Yitzchak blessing Yaacov, where the Pasuk states: “…When he smelled the smell of his garments, he blessed him and said ‘SEE, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which God has blessed.” (Bereshit 27, 26-27) In spoken English we have a similar phenomenon: The usage of the word “look” is sometimes not aimed to show something visibly, but rather to establish the connection with the conversation partner.

Re’eh as a conative function. Moshe “yells” at the Jewish people: “Open your eyes! Look what great choice God is giving you!” The Sforno comments to the word Re’eh the following: “Look carefully and see to it that you don’t act in a mediocre way like most of the people.” The Sforno explains the word Re’eh as a warning: Be careful! See to it that you make the right decision! Choose the blessing, not the curse! According to this interpretation Re’eh is to be understood as a clear order, an imperative. The Baal HaTurim goes a step further and interprets the first two words of the verse together: “’Re’eh Anochi’ – look at the Ten Commandments [which start with the word Anochi] and fulfill them.” Obviously one can not “look” at the ten or at any commandments because this is an abstract term. Rather is the word “looking/ seeing” to be understood in this context as seeing into oneself, reflect. Interestingly the word “In-sight” reflects exactly that notion (also the German “Einsicht”), i.e. to see inside oneself rather than looking outside oneself. In that spirit the word Re’eh could also be translated as “Think!” Here is the core of man’s free will: To decide to accept the “yoke of heaven” or not to accept it. And Moshe makes it clear that if one thinks truly and carefully, (s)he will come to the right decision, the decision of “Uvacharta bachayim – choose life” (Devarim 30, 19).

Re’eh as an emotive function. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach zt”l explains the words “Shema Yisrael” as follows: “Hey! Shema! Listen! Look what a wonderful thing I have here for you…!” Like a child who discovers something extraordinary and full of excitement turns to this mother with the words: “Mummy! Look! Look!” God turns to his people full of love and care and tells them “Shema! Shema! I have a wonderful message for you, I am One!” In this spirit Moshe’s call “Re’eh!” could be understood as expressing an emotive function (although one could recognize here some “phatic” characteristics.as well). Jakobson stresses that this language function is focused on the addresser, not the addressee (who is in the center of the conative function). Moshe is overwhelmed by emotions: “Re’eh! Look! Hey! God is giving you a wonderful gift, that of free choice! Use it! And use it properly!” In this context the word “Re’eh” does not have a direct implication for the listeners, rather is it an emotional expression of the speaker’s attitude toward what he is speaking about.

Re’eh as a referential function. Rashi comments that “Re’eh” is referring to a socio-theological event which was commanded in Moshe’s days, but only implemented in the time of Joshua, once the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land: The ceremony of “blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Eval”. (Devarim 11, 29) This moving event, which does not seem to be recognized enough in its historic importance, was described in the Book of Joshua: “All Israel with their elders and officers and their judges were standing on both sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of God, the stranger as well as the native. Half of them stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Eval… Then afterward he [=Joshua] read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. (Joshua 8, 33-34) According to some commentators the blessing and the curse had an impact on the two mountains themselves! Mount Eval, which lies north of Shechem (Nablus) and has a height of 940 meters, “received” the curse, and till to today it is more desolate and less blossoming than the “blessed” Mount Gerizim (881 meters, south of Shechem)! In light of this “botanical phenomena” the sentence “Re’eh…” gets a very simple meaning: Moshe tells the Jewish People that one day they will “see” –in a literal sense- the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Eval! This language function is indeed purely referential and informative, and there is no emotion or imperative involved.

We have shown that “Re’eh” can be understood using scientific methods of Modern Linguistics. But we have also seen that different voices from our long and rich oral tradition have embodied these abstract rules in one way or another in relation to the first word of our Parsha.