SALT Parashat Re'eh 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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Motzaei Shabbat

            In the opening verse of Parashat Re’ei, Moshe announces to Benei Yisrael, “See that I present before you today a blessing and curse.” He proceeds to explain that we are able to choose either the “blessing” or the “curse,” by deciding to follow or to neglect God’s laws which Moshe presented.

            Darshanim throughout the ages have noted and discussed the shift in this verse from the singular to plural form. The word “re’ei” (“see”) is written in the singular form, indicating that Moshe addresses the nation as a single organic entity, but the word “lifneikhem” (“before you”) in written in the plural form. This shift has provided the basis for numerous creative insights by authors and darshanim throughout the centuries.

            The Rebbe of Kotzk commented that the explanation for this shift is, in his mind, obvious: the Torah is given equally to everyone, but each person studies and understands at his individual level. Moshe presented the Torah “lifneikhem” – to the entire nation – but he instructs, “Re’ei” – that we each learn and understand to the best of our individual capabilities. No two people are going to “see” – that is, comprehend – Torah on the same level. We were all presented the same body of knowledge, but we each achieve according to our personal abilities.

            In the Ohel Torah compendium of the Kotzker Rebbe’s teachings, a note appears in reference to this insight directing our attention to a different comment made by the Rebbe. The comment was made in explaining the verse in Kohelet (11:9), “…but know that God will bring you to judgment for all this.” The Kotzker Rebbe explained the word “ve-da” (“but know”) as admonishing each person to determine the specific methods and strategies he needs to ensure he acts properly. As we are each created with different temperaments, skills and flaws, we each need to find the specific strategies and techniques that take into account our individual spiritual strengths and weaknesses. This instruction, too, may be implied by the shift from the singular to plural form in the opening verse of Parashat Re’ei. Moshe gave us all the same Torah, but we must each find the particular strategies that will help us remain loyal to that Torah. We are to “see” what our individual strengths and weaknesses are so will be able to ensure our ongoing fidelity to God’s law and the maximizing of our potential in avodat Hashem.

Sunday

            In the beginning of Parashat Re’ei, Moshe instructs Benei Yisrael with regard to the ceremony they were to conduct upon entering Eretz Yisrael. At this ceremony – the details of which are outlined later, in Parashat Ki-Tavo – six tribes stood on Mount Gerizim, and the other six on the adjacent Mount Eival. The Leviyim, who stood in the valley in between the two mountains, turned to Mount Gerizim to proclaim a blessing upon those who observe the Torah’s commands, and then turned to Mount Eival to pronounce a curse upon those who did not observe God’s laws.

            Rav Yosef Tzvi Salant, in his Be’er Yosef, suggested that this event was intended to express the message articulated by the Gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin (40b), as famously mentioned by the Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva (3:4): “Every person should see himself throughout the entire year as though he is half meritorious and half guilty, and also the entire world as though it is half meritorious and half guilty. If he commits a single sin, he tips himself and the entire world toward guilt…” Symbolically, having half the nation stand on the mountain representing blessing, and the other half on the mountain representing curse, conveys the message that at any given moment, our nation’s status before God could be hanging in abeyance. This event was intended to empower the individual with the knowledge that any single act he or she commits could determine our entire nation’s status in God’s eyes.

            In this vein, Rav Salant explains why Moshe introduces this command with the word “re’ei” – “see.” We are to live with this image before our eyes – the image of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, of the prospect of our entire nation hanging in balance and depending upon our personal conduct and mode of behavior. Rav Salant adds further that for this reason Moshe exhorts, “See that I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” We are to view our nation and ourselves from this perspective “today,” on any given day. At all times, we must consider the possibility that our individual actions will have a decisive effect on not only ourselves and our lives, and but also on all Am Yisrael.

            Too often, we feel on an “ordinary” day that the things we do have no special impact, that our day-to-day routine matters little in the grand scheme of things. Moshe’s timeless exhortation of “re’ei” reminds us that to the contrary, any action we do or refrain from doing can have a profound, decisive impact upon ourselves and our nation. We are to live with the scene of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival before our eyes, with the realization that even the seemingly insignificant, day-to-day actions we perform are profoundly important and consequential.

Monday

            The final section of Parashat Re’ei deals with the festivals, and in discussing the celebration of Pesach, the Torah commands, “Do not eat chametz with it [the paschal sacrifice]; for seven days, you shall eat matzot…” (16:3).  The Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (35a) observes that the Torah here appears to link the prohibition against eating chametz on Pesach with the obligation to eat matza.  On the basis of this association, the Gemara establishes the rule that one fulfills the obligation of matza only with matza made from grains which can undergo the process of leavening (to the exclusion of grains such as rice and millet).  Since the Torah linked the obligation of matza with the prohibition of chametz, the obligation can only be fulfilled with a grain that could potentially become chametz and could thus become forbidden on Pesach.

Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, notes the symbolic significance of this halakhaChametz is often viewed as a symbol of the yetzer ha-ra, our instinctive negative tendencies.  Matza, comprised of nothing but flour and water, represents purity of spirit, whereas the more elaborate, luxurious chametz signifies the desire for forbidden pleasures.  On Pesach, when God took us to be His special nation, we commit ourselves to the ideal of matza, to overcome our sinful inclinations and live lives characterized by purity and holiness.  The halakhic requirements of the matza of Pesach teach us to what precisely we should aspire over the course of this lifelong process of overcoming our “chametz” tendencies and achieving a state of “matza.”  Namely, we should aspire to becoming “matza” which has the potential to become “chametz.”  As Chazal instruct elsewhere, a person should not profess having no desire for non-kosher food, but should rather acknowledge his craving and affirm his disciplined loyalty to the divine command.  What this means, as Rav Ginsburg explains, is that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can become robotically faithful to the Torah’s laws.  Trying to reach an angelic state where we are naturally and instinctively drawn to do good and avoid evil is an exercise in futility.  Instead, we must recognize the need to constantly struggle with ourselves and work hard to observe God’s commands.  If we aspire to obliterate our yetzer ha-ra, we will either despair or delude ourselves.  Our aspiration should be to live as “matza” which could potentially become “chametz” – to live lives of purity despite our capacity for sin.  We should never expect to reach the point where “chametz” is impossible, where we are entirely free of all vices and shortcomings, and thus incapable of sin.  Rather, we must acknowledge our weaknesses and our susceptibility to temptation, and commit ourselves to waging an ongoing battle against ourselves so we remain loyal and faithful servants of God.

Tuesday

The Torah in Parashat Re’ei introduces the mitzva of ha’anaka, which requires giving one’s indentured servant a “grant” upon his release from service.  An indentured servant is to be released after six years of work, and the Torah here requires the master to provide the servant with some assets when the servant leaves his service.  The Torah then adds, “Do not feel bad…for he has earned twice the wages of a laborer when he worked for you for seven years, and the Lord your God shall then bless you in all that you do” (15:18).

            Most commentators explain this verse to mean that an indentured servant deserves this “grant” because the value of his service far exceeds that of an ordinary employee.  According to Rashi, this is because a master may have his indentured servant marry a shifcha (maidservant) and beget children who then become servants themselves.  Others, including Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, explain that as opposed to ordinary workers, an indentured servant lives with his master, and thus the extent and value of his service is far greater, as he is able to work after hours and is more familiar with the master’s needs and preferences.  Regardless, the conventional understanding of this verse is that the phrase, “ki mishneh sekhar sakhir avadekha sheish shanim” (“for he has earned twice the wages of a laborer when he worked for you for seven years”) is the Torah’s explanation for the ha’anaka requirement.  The Torah informs the master that the servant deserves these gifts in light of the service he has provided.

            The Rashbam, however, advances an entirely different interpretation of this verse.  He explains that the phrase “ki mishneh sekhar sakhir avadekha sheish shanim” expresses the feelings of the master, who might, justifiably, find this requirement unfair.  After having paid a considerable amount of money for the servant six years earlier, the master is now required to present the servant with a sizable gift.  Essentially, he is paying twice the value of what he received.  Sensitive to these sentiments, the Torah tells the master that “the Lord your God shall then bless you in all that you do.”  According to the Rashbam, the ha’anaka requirement is indeed “unfair,” in that the master ends up paying far more than the value he receives.  Nevertheless, the Torah commands the master to make this payment for the servant’s benefit – presumably, to jumpstart his process of financial rehabilitation – and promises great reward in exchange.

            We might learn from this mitzva, as it is understood by the Rashbam, to be prepared to help and give to others without making “cost-benefit” calculations.  As in the case of a master and servant, we all have many people in our lives from whom we derive great benefit.  The mitzva of ha’anaka perhaps teaches us that our debt of gratitude to these people need not and should not be limited to our estimation of the precise value of the benefit we receive from them.  A husband and wife, for example, should be willing and trying to give to one another unlimitedly, even if they feel they are not getting the same in return.  Likewise, we should feel grateful and indebted for even the seemingly small favors people have done for us, and be prepared to return the favor manifold.  The Torah promises that in exchange for granting the servant ha’anaka, “the Lord your God shall then bless you in all that you do.”  We should never hesitate to give to others far more than we’ve received from them, for God has promised to generously reward us for every bit of kindness that we extend to other people.

Wednesday

            The Torah in Parashat Re’ei discusses the mitzva of ma’aser sheni, which requires a farmer to take one-tenth of his produce each year to Jerusalem and eat it there.  In this context, the Torah adds a provision enabling one to exchange the produce for money and then bring the money to Jerusalem, instead:

If the journey is too long for you to carry it, for the place which the Lord your God will choose is too far from you…then exchange it for money, and wrap the money in your hand and go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose.  Spend the money on whatever you desire – cattle, sheep, wine…” (14:24-26).

A farmer who finds it difficult to bring all his ma’aser sheni produce with him to Jerusalem has the option of transferring the produce’s special status onto money, which he brings with him to Jerusalem and uses to purchase foods and drinks.  He then eats those foods and drinks as his ma’aser sheni there in Jerusalem.

            The Sefat Emet offers a homiletic, Chassidic interpretation of this verse.  When the Torah speaks of “the place which the Lord your God will choose” being “too far from you,” it may allude to a condition in which one feels distant from God and incapable of overcoming his base tendencies to draw close to his Creator.  The Torah instructs a person in this condition, “Ve-natata ba-kesef” (literally, “you shall exchange it for money”).  The word “kesef” can also mean “yearn” or “longing,” and the Torah thus urges the person to continue building upon his sincere longing for a relationship with the Almighty.  He should “wrap” this longing “in his hand” – make it his central goal and aspiration – and then “spend” it on “whatever you desire.”  When a person sincerely longs for a connection with God, the Sefat Emet writes, then this desire will express itself in all a person’s areas of engagement, including his mundane activities.  The Sefat Emet writes that even if a person feels incapable of achieving the level of piety he desires, and he feels “too distant,” he should nevertheless cultivate this desire and have this goal in his mind throughout his day, in all activities he performs.

            The message conveyed by the Sefat Emet in this passage indeed relates closely to the concept underlying the mitzva of ma’aser sheni.  This mitzva essentially requires a farmer to bridge the gap between his farm and Jerusalem, between his mundane, professional life and the center of our nation’s spiritual life – the Beit Ha-mikdash.  He is to take a portion of his earnings and consecrate it, and then travel to Jerusalem and partake of that portion in a manner resembling the consumption of sacrifices.  (Ma’aser sheni resembles sacrificial meat – specifically, kodashim kalim – in that it must be eaten in Jerusalem and in a state of ritual purity.)  The message of ma’aser sheni is that even those who are not kohanim and thus do not spend their days in the Mikdash, are nevertheless able and obligated to strive for spiritual greatness.  Although he spends the day in his fields, the farmer must connect to God and forge a close relationship with Him.  This message is formalized and concretized though the institution of ma’aser sheni, whereby a portion of one’s agricultural yield attains the status of “kodashim” and he is required to participate in the experience of eating hallowed food in the sacred city of Jerusalem.

            The model of ma’aser sheni is thus instructive for the situation described by the Sefat Emet.  Just as a layman is not able or expected to be a kohen serving full-time in the Beit Ha-mikdash, similarly, we occasionally feel, for one reason or another, unable to maximize our potential and achieve the spiritual levels we are capable of.  A variety of factors often stand in the way of our realizing our full spiritual potential.  We feel the genuine desire to reach the “Mikdash,” but we find ourselves mired in the mundane realities of our “fields.”  The mitzva of ma’aser sheni should both encourage and challenge us to continue yearning and striving for a connection with the “Beit Ha-mikdash,” to do what we can despite our imperfections.  Feelings of inadequacy and failure, even if they are valid and accurate, do not absolve us from the obligation to strive.  Even when we feel “distant,” we cannot despair.  We are to continue striving and working to do as much as we can, inching ever closer to the lofty goals that we ought to be achieving, distant and unattainable as they might seem at the present moment.

Thursday

            The Torah in Parashat Re’ei (13:1) reiterates the prohibition of bal tosif – adding onto the Torah’s commands: “You shall ensure to perform everything which I command you; do not add onto it or detract from it.”  This prohibition also appears earlier in Sefer Devarim, in Parashat Vaetchanan (4:2).

            The halakhic tradition has understood this command as referring to either adding requirements to individual mitzvot – such as taking five species on Sukkot, instead of four – or introducing new laws.  However, Rav Amnon Bazak (in Shabbat Be-Shabbato, Parashat Re’ei, 5764) noted that the context of this prohibition may yield a different perspective, on the level of peshuto shel mikra (the plain meaning of the text).  Both here and in Parashat Vaetchanan, the prohibition of bal tosif is mentioned in the context of a warning against pagan worship.  Here, in Parashat Re’ei, Moshe warns that the people might be impressed by pagan worship and seek to adopt pagan mores in the service of God:

Be careful, lest you be ensnared by them…and lest you seek their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods?  I will do the same.’  Do not do so to the Lord your God… You shall ensure to perform everything which I command you; do not add onto it or detract from it.

The prohibition of bal tosif is issued here as a warning against seeking to introduce in the service of God elements that Benei Yisrael saw the pagans use in worshipping their deities.

            Similarly, in Parashat Vaetchanan, the prohibition of bal tosif is followed by a reminder of the tragedy of Ba’al Pe’or:

Do not add onto that which I command you… Your eyes saw all that the Lord did at Ba’al Pe’or, that every man who followed Ba’al Pe’or was destroyed by the Lord your God from your midst, whereas you, who adhered to the Lord your God, are all alive today.

In the narrative of the Ba’al Pe’or story, the Torah twice (Bamidbar 25:3,5) uses the unusual root tz.m.d. (“cling” or “firmly attach”) to describe how members of Benei Yisrael embraced the worship of Pe’or.  The implication, perhaps, is that they were enamored and enchanted by this mode of worship.  They did not merely worship Pe’or; they were excited by it, evidently having been dazzled by this particular form of idolatry.  In this context, Moshe warns “lo tosifu,” that we should not be impressed with the excitement and fervor surrounding foreign worship and seek to emulate it.

            It emerges, then, that the prohibition of bal tosif refers to a very specific kind of “addition” to the Torah, namely, adding flavors of foreign faiths and rituals.  Moshe’s fear was that the grandeur and pageantry associated with pagan worship would impress Benei Yisrael and make them jealous, leading them to try emulating the pagans in their own religious lives.  He therefore reminds them to strictly adhere to God’s laws as presented in the Torah, without trying to “enhance” the Torah by borrowing elements from pagan culture.

Friday

            In Parashat Re’ei (13:2-6), Moshe foresees a time when a false prophet will arise and seek to persuade the people to worship idols.  Moshe warns Benei Yisrael not to be impressed with such a prophet, and to utterly reject his advice, and he even declares that a prophet making these claims is liable to the death penalty.

            Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar, comments that the situation Moshe foresees is one where the people face a situation of crisis, and somebody seeks to capitalize on their state of vulnerability by attempting to persuade them to embrace pagan rituals.  In times of crisis and distress, people are desperate for a solution and are open to considering new measures which they had not tried before, figuring that some drastic change is needed to correct the problem.  This desperation provides fertile ground for both charlatans and missionaries eager to try selling their “goods” to willing customers.

            This interpretation may perhaps shed light on a well-known comment by the Gemara concerning a verse in this section.  In urging the people not to be misled by the false prophet, Moshe instructs, “You shall follow [only] the Lord your God, and you shall fear [only] Him; you shall observe His commands and heed His voice; you shall serve Him and attach yourselves to Him.”  The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (14a) explains the command, “Acharei Hashem Elokekha teileikhu” (“You shall follow the Lord your God”) to mean that we must follow His example and model our behavior after His, so-to-speak.  Just as He cares for His creatures, providing us with our needs and tending to the ill and downtrodden, we, too, must act kindly toward other people and care for their needs.  As the Gemara writes, “Just as He clothes the naked, so shall you clothe the naked, just as He visits the sick, so shall you visit the sick.”

This command perhaps assumes greater significance when we consider the context, at least according to Netziv.  During times of crisis and hardship, people naturally look for solutions, and spiritually-minded people are intuitively drawn to search within the metaphysical realm to find the answers.  While this is certainly how it should be, this quest gives rise to the danger described here by Moshe, of “false prophets” of various kinds offering all types of magical remedies and luring people to foreign faiths.  The proper response, the Gemara teaches, is to “clothe the naked” and “visit the sick.”  The solutions do not lie “exotic,” far-flung, revolutionary measures.  Rather, they lie in strengthening and enhancing the “bread-and-butter” of Torah life.  The false prophets described here by Moshe can succeed only if the people are searching for “otherworldly” responses to crisis.  He therefore urges us, “You shall follow the Lord your God” – to recommit ourselves, first and foremost, to the basics of Torah values, to raising our level of concern for the people around us.  When searching for ways to grow and improve, we should begin with the basic, everyday values and ideals which the Torah instructs, and look to enhance our standards of conduct in our normal, day-to-day engagement with other people.