Re’eh: Rabbi Abraham
Torah Reading: RE-EH, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17.
Haftara: Isaiah 54:11-55:5.
AND YOU SHALL CHOOSE LIFE
“See: I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deut. 11:26). Moses asks us to see and understand the most important fact about our existential condition: that we are free. Each of us is placed within a unique matrix of circumstances that set the overall parameters of our lives. Yet within those parameters, we are constantly faced with options and divergent pathways, and our task is to choose between them. Our freedom is a trial because while we may see (or imagine we see) where we want a given pathway to take us in the short-term, as time-bound humans we can never know the long-term consequences of our choices at the moment we actually make those choices.
Only G-d has perfect knowledge of all the short- and long-term consequences of the options that face us. While He gives us the freedom to make our own choices, He offers us guidance based upon His knowledge. Thus the Zohar calls the commandments of the Torah “advice”. Each commandment is advice about which turn to take at each juncture in the road of life. Nothing compels us to follow the commandments: if there were any compulsion, we would not be free. G-d wants us to have the merit of choosing our destiny for ourselves — He wants us to see and understand for ourselves, and to make wise choices. “SEE: I am setting before you a blessing and a curse” . “And you shall choose LIFE”. (Deut. 30:19).
Moses was addressing the Children of Israel in the plains of Moab, where they were poised to enter the Promised Land under Joshua. Moses instructed them to perform a powerfully striking ceremony on entry into the Land. This was designed to imprint deeply in the consciousness of the nation the terms on which they would possess the Land. Six of the twelve tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim and six on Mount Eival, while the Priests and Levites were to stand in the valley between them chanting a list of fundamental Torah prohibitions, blessing those who observe them and cursing those who violate them. (The actual performance of the ceremony is described in Joshua chapter 8.)
Our parshah of RE’EH opens with the beginning of Moses’ instructions about this ceremony (Deut. 11:26-32). Further instructions and the text of the chant are given four parshas later in KI TAVO (Deut. 27:11-26. Thus we find that the main body of the book of Deuteronomy is “sandwiched” between the beginning of Moses’ instructions for the ceremony of blessings and curses at the start of RE’EH and his further instructions for the ceremony given in the middle of KI TAVO. The main body of Deuteronomy is made up of the detailed commandments in many different areas of life contained in the parshiyos we read on this Shabbat and for the next three weeks.
The remainder of parshas RE’EH, the whole of parshas SHOFTIM and KI TETZE and the first part of KI TAVO thus constitute the “repetition of the law” that gives the book of Deuteronomy its name. In Torah literature, this book is called MISHNEH TORAH, “the repetition of the law”, while the Greek words that make up the name Deuteronomy mean exactly the same — the repetition of, or second law. It is not that this law is any different from the code of Exodus (as set forth in parshas MISHPATIM) or that of Leviticus (set forth in parshas KEDOSHIM). Rabbinic exegesis of Torah law in the Midrash and Talmud shows that all the different passages supplement one another and constitute a single, unified code. The law is “repeated” because it is only through MISHNEH — constant repetition and review — that we bring the Torah deep into our hearts and make it rule our lives.
The sandwiching of the code of Deuteronomy, the MISHNEH TORAH, between the beginning and end of the instructions for the ceremony of blessings and curses on entry into the Land comes to emphasize that keeping the Torah is the essential condition for Israel’s possession of the Land. The opening parshahs of Deuteronomy set forth the fundamentals of faith and trust in G-d, love and awe and the other basic traits we are asked to cultivate. Now we come to the detailed laws of the Torah, as set forth in this and the ensuing parshahs. It was over this complete code, with its foundations and all its details, that Moses struck a Covenant with Israel in the plains of Moab, as recounted in KI TAVO, which we will read shortly before the New Year and Days of Awe.
The most striking feature of the Code as set forth in Deuteronomy compared to the laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers is the constant return to the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple in the life of the nation. “To the place that Hashem your G-d will choose from all your tribes to place His name there to dwell — search it out and come there!” (Deut. 12:5). On conquest of the land, the Israelites were charged with totally uprooting and destroying all vestiges of Canaanite and any other kind of idolatry in order to ensure the success of the pure monotheistic order they were to establish in their place. The unity of G-d could not be revealed through the multiple shrines of the heathens “on the high mountains and on the hills and under every leafy tree”. G-d’s unity is revealed only when the consciousness of all Israel and of the entire world is focussed on the House of HaShem on Mount Moriah, the “Mountain of Teaching”. For “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of HaShem from Yerushalayim”.
Later in the Code of Deuteronomy (SHOFTIM, Deut. 17:8ff, etc.) we will encounter Mount Moriah as the seat of the sages and elders of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s true Supreme Court, whose proper place is in the Hewn Chamber on the Temple Mount. However, in our present parshah of RE’EH, the focus is on Jerusalem and the Temple as the center of the nation’s religious life, which itself is inextricably bound up with agriculture and the economy. Blessing reigns in Israel when the first-born animals and animal tithes are offered on the Temple Altar; when meat is consumed not purely out of lust, but in order to partake of peace and thanksgiving offerings; when the first-fruits are presented in the Temple; when Terumah is given to the priests and the tithe to the Levites, while the Israelites take up their second tithe to eat in holiness and purity within the boundaries of Jerusalem. “Three times in the year, all your males shall appear before the Lord your G-d.” (Deut. 16:16).
Complete blessing can dwell only when the law is scrupulously observed. “ALL the word that I am commanding you, you shall guard to do: YOU MUST NOT ADD TO IT AND NOT SUBSTRACT FROM IT” (Duet. 13:1). Some of the severest sanctions in the Torah are reserved for those who encourage others to deviate from the law, such as the false prophet, those who lead whole towns astray, and notably the MEISIS (“inciter to idolatry” — Deut. 13:2-19). The Torah insists that sanctions may be imposed only through due legal procedure — “And you shall search out and investigate and question thoroughly” (Deut. 13:16). Nothing could be further from the Torah law on the eradication of idolatry than the practice of those who “burn their sons and daughters in fire to their gods” — those who send young male and female suicide-terrorists to indiscriminately kill innocent men, women and children and babes in arms in the name of religion. The severity of the law of the Torah is directed not at innocents but at smooth-tongued, malicious, evil and dangerous inciters who whip up entire nations to madness.
But “You are children to HaShem your G-d”: our best protection against the smooth-tongued incitement to stray from the Torah to which we are exposed every day is our own personal holiness and sanctity. Thus the laws in our parshah against incitement are followed immediately by the laws of holiness and abstention from the consumption of forbidden species of animals, which causes spiritual degradation. We are to regulate our physical appetites. We are to tithe our crops, and instead of simply eating the fruits immediately at home in order satisfy our bodily needs, we are to take a tithe (Maaser Sheni) to eat in Jerusalem “in order that you will learn to revere HaShem your G-d all the days”. Self-restraint applies not only to farmers but to those involved in the money economy as well. Thus our parshah contains the laws of restraining our appetite for wealth through giving charity and loans to the needy, and remitting debts in the Sabbatical year. Again and again we are charged to remember the poor and needy, the Levite, the widow and the orphan.
Through our compassion, we will arouse the compassion of the Almighty as we prepare to enter the month of ELUL, the time of Teshuvah. love and compassion. The letters of the name of Elul are the initial letters of ANI LEDODI VEDODI LI: “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”.