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Re'eh

Parshat Re'eh continues Moses' third sermon to the people. It begins with the classic statement, "See (re'eh), this day I set before you a blessing and a curse" - a blessing if the people obey God's commandments and a curse if they choose to disobey. The parsha then shifts to the laws themselves, forming the longest section of Deuteronomy. But rather than presenting a comprehensive code, the parsha lays out general principles, relying on an unwritten oral tradition to specify the details.

Chapter 12 warns against idolatrous practices and introduces the theme that, once in the Land of Canaan the Hebrews are to worship only at "the site which Adonai your God will choose to establish his name." – an obvious reference to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Once they enter into the Promised Land, they are to totally destroy the religious sites belonging to other nations no matter where they are located. They are to bring their offerings there and rejoice with their families by feasting at the place of sacrifice. Although the meat of sacrifices may be eaten only in Jerusalem, the Torah now permits the Israelites to slaughter animals for secular purposes and eat the meat elsewhere, but they may not consume the blood "for the blood is the life."

The Torah repeats the basic laws of kashrut: Animals with cleft hoofs and which chew their cud may be eaten in addition to anything that lives in water which has fins and scales. Birds that are not birds of prey may also be consumed. There is a further prohibition against eating winged swarming things or anything that has died a natural death. A kid boiled in the milk of its mother is also forbidden.

Chapter 13 warns against prophets, miracle-workers, and dream-diviners who might try to woo the people into worshipping other gods. Even if their predictions come true, the Hebrews are to put them to death.

Chapter 14 begins by forbidding two mourning customs that were common among other peoples in the ancient Near East: shaving the front of the hair and gashing oneself in grief. The chapter ends with rules about tithes: the Israelites are commanded to bring the first fruits, grains, wines, oils and first born of every flock to the place of worship that God will designate, and eat them there. In addition, they must set aside as an offering to God one-tenth of everything they grow as well as the first born of all their flocks and herds. (If someone lives too far from the designated altar to transport the animals, the animals must be sold and they must bring the money instead. Then they must buy food and drink and prepare a family feast before the Lord.) If the first born of the herd or flock is flawed or has a serious defect, it is not to be brought as a sacrifice to God. These defective creatures are to be eaten in the settlements.

In addition, three times each year - at Pesah, Shavu'ot and Sukkot - the parsha instructs the people to travel to a place God will choose, bringing gifts in accordance with what God has given.

Chapter 15 repeats the general principles of social legislation: Since the Levites have no land of their own, all property must be shared with them as well as with strangers, orphans, and widows.

Every third year, every person is to leave one-tenth of everything in the settlement so that those in need can take their fill. Every seventh year, if someone owes money, the debt must be forgiven. If there is a needy person living in a settlement, one must not harden one’s heart and shut ones hand (Deuteronomy 15:7). If one owns Hebrew slaves, they are to be set free in the seventh year, and sent away with a fair portion of cattle, grain and drink. If a slave does not want freedom, the ear should be pierced as a sign of permanent servitude.

If the people obey God's laws, God will bless them and make them prosperous.

Commentary /Themes

Within these laws, there is a subtle redundancy in the text that deserves our attention. It is written, "For you are about to cross the Jordan to come to possess of the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (Deuteronomy 11:31) Why did the text go out of its way to command that the children of Israel both "come" to the land and "possess" it? Surely, either of these phrases by itself would have made it clear what the children of Israel were supposed to do when they crossed the Jordan River. Why use two verbs when one would have been sufficient? Upon closer reflection, this redundancy suggests a more nuanced reading. The text seems to be suggesting that only through two complete actions could the children of Israel transform the land into the fertile home that they were promised. In other words, the simple act of being there was not enough. Their future required the additional act of "possessing" the land and taking ownership of the responsibility to transform their future.

There’s a lesson here for us. As Jews within a Jewish community, it isn’t enough just to be part of the community – we have to do something – we have to take ownership of our communities in order to ensure our communities’ future.

The title of this week’s parsha is Re’eh, which means “to see”. This word forms the beginning of the parsha’s introduction: “See, this day I set before you blessings and curses” .

This parsha makes it clear: our future well-being is not predicated on an ability to feel, smell nor hear, but to “see”, as in “to grasp”, and “comprehend” that the long and winding road ahead is paved with choices that have consequences.

To see or listen is the philosophical forerunner to that age-old debate about religion – do you have to believe BEFORE you observe or can you observe without yet believing?

The Sifre, an important early midrashic work, was blunt: “If you observe a little, you will end up hearing much.”

These two verbs (Observe and Hear) sum up a Judaism that grows on you; that through beginning to observe, you come to believe. This parsha thus challenges us to choose life by “finding ourselves”, a formidable task, one that requires an ability not just to look ahead physically, but to “see” the spiritual possibilities, a reality attained only through a prism strengthened by knowing the right way to think, behave, feel, etc.

The ability to “see” is in itself a blessing, because life is not so obvious, which is why the Torah urges us to use “this day” – ie. Today, not tomorrow - to act appropriately because each and every day opens new possibilities of choosing, or changing directions.

Freedom of choice is why this parsha is always read at the beginning of the month that precedes the Rosh Hashona-Yom Kippur cycle, Elul, a time when traditionally, Jews become introspective; the word Elul being derived from an Aramaic word meaning “to contemplate, examine, analyze: in order to strengthen the process of t’shuva – repentance – which draws us closer to God and to each other – haba alenu letovah, for the permanent good.

But what exactly does Moses want the Jews to “see”? – The answer: The behavioural codes of holiness.

The parsha begins by elaborating on the laws of kashruth and defining which animals, birds and fish may be eaten.

In the utopian Garden of Eden the original Divine plan was vegetarianism, based on the order that mankind should eat only plants and fruit. Meat eating became permitted after the flood as a concession to human weakness.

This parsha gives us the only rational for kashruth. “You are a people consecrated,” thus creating a people who are identified not only by what we eat, but where, how, when and why we eat as well – and according to the Rambam this is in order to master appetites and restrain desires.

The act of eating impels us to act with the Godly, an essential mechanism to maintain separation from other cultures to help us fight assimilation and help guarantee the survival and continuity of the Jewish people.

WARNING AGAINST FALSE PROPHETS

Moshe is aware that the road to holiness requires leadership and so this parsha also issues a Be Aware warning for the layman; a challenge to recognize a rascal rabbi, a phony prophet, a miscreant messenger of God, a sham of a leader.

The Torah recognizes the harm and chaos that can result from the seductive ambiguity of “scoundrels and unbelievers” who deliver up deceiving prophecy, and of corruptive leadership masquerading under a cloak of righteousness.

This speaks to us today – we see the harm that comes from organizations like Jews for Jesus or The Organization for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This latter group is particularly dangerous because it disguises itself as a Jewish group when in fact it is the farthest thing from it – Secular Humanists do not believe in God, Torah or Halachah – they discourage circumcision, encourage intermarriage and have an agenda that is ultimately anti-Semitic – their purpose being to create a symbiotic world of no religious practice.

So what is the criterion for determining a prophet’s authenticity? The ability to predict the future? The power to employ miraculous signs? Yes and no – because even a broken clock is correct twice a day!

The true navi is recognizable by advocating strict adherence to Divine principles and in the context of this week’s Parsha, involves fighting against the instability and threat of discontinuity from alien cultures, specifically the “sons of Beli’al” who are trying to beguile the emerging Judaism of a holy people.

Thus, as Dr. Joe Bobker writes, “the glue to genuiness lies through the consistency of purity and perfection, in observing an overall lifestyle; a conclusion that Torah linguists reach by combining the b’li ti ol of the family of Beli’al to arrive at those who are “without value, worthless,” having shepar’ku ollo shel Kakom – thrown off the yoke of God.”

This is a warning that in the absence of religious restraints no morality is reliable.

THE SPIRIT OF GIVING

That Jews are exceptionally charitable can be traced back to this parsha which introduces us to such unprecedented notions of communal compassion as debt remission and “tithing” – an essential part of Torah legislation which involves tax for the needy.

This comes as no surprise: the entire substructure of Torah is the theme of chesed (charity): beginning with God providing clothing for Adam and Eve and ending with the arranging a burial for Moses.

Tithing is an essential Torah legislation. Rabbi Akiva considered the act of giving a “fence for wealth”. There is a well-known rabbinic saying “asser bish v’il shetit asher” “Give tithes so that you will be wealthy”.

It may cost you to give tithes, but it does not make you poorer for the more we give, writes Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, the more we receive materialistically and emotionally.

Although the traditional answer to the Who is a JEW? Question is one born to a Jewish mother, or converted according to the laws of Moses, it is the “Kindness” component of this week’s parsha that gives an intriguing insight into what MAKES a Jew.

In a stunning conclusion, the rabbis of the Talmud declare that hardheartedness is a Judaic anomaly, “Whoever does not have compassion and mercy is not of the seed of Avraham”, in other words, to be a spiritual Jew, one must be sensitive and caring towards others , to have the ability to sense their hurts and respond unselfishly to their needs.

Thus, to be a disciple of Avraham and his religion is to be at peace with oneself. It isn’t sufficient to be a Jew in name only but in deeds as well, to have, according to Pirkei Avot, the three characteristics of a “good eye” – a generous sense of benevolence, a humble temperament and a lowly spirit – rejection of extravagance and materialist overkill.

Yet it is a mistake to say that the term tzeddaka means charity – the word comes from tzedek which means righteousness or justice. In other words, Judaism requires us to do what is right and fair – and this places more intellectual, moral and spiritual emphasis on the heart rather than the mind.

The Torah was the first to lay down the rule that charity begins at home, not only for the purpose of teaching our children to be generous but a recognition of the human condition; that only those who are happy and content within have the right moral stamina to extend a helping hand to others.

The 12th century Rambam, in his laws of Charity, affirms this by instructing us to “give with a friendly and joyful countenance,” basing his insight on the terminology of a Torah that does not state bluntly to “do kindness” but to “love kindness.”

Re'eh. Open your eyes. Take a good, hard look at the world around you. Be clear about what you see and what needs to be done and what you need to do and how you can make the world a better place.