Topics and Themes

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Re'eh – Topics and Themes

By Rav Michael Hattin

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.

INTRODUCTION

Parashat Re'eh begins with Moshe's stark challenge to the people of Israel: he has placed the blessing and the curse before them, to devotedly serve the One True God and to observe His commandments or else to stray after the many false gods worshipped by the Canaanites and to follow in their ways. The blessing will bring them life, so that they might secure their place in the new land and prosper as a people upon its soil. The curse will bring them national destruction, for by abandoning the God of Israel they will forfeit their claim to fertile Canaan and be exiled from its borders.

The blessing and the curse, more fully explicated in Parashat Ki Tavo (Chapter 27), are to be publicly pronounced at an assembly of all of the people to be held at the valley nestled between the twin peaks of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, both of them located near the important town of Shechem in the northern hill country. From a topographical standpoint, Gerizim to the west, verdant and green, constitutes a perfect expression of the blessing, while arid Eval to the east, beyond the watershed and parched, graphically illustrates the curse. And Shechem itself, the urban marker for the future event, recalls the journey of Avraham and Sarah, who centuries earlier had journeyed from 'Ur in Mesopotamia at God's behest and arrived at that place when they first entered the land (see Bereishit 12:6).

Thus, Moshe's mention of the blessing and the curse, of Gerizim and of Eval, to be invoked when the people of Israel enter Canaan and energetically set themselves to the task of terracing its hills, is an evocative attempt not only to impress upon them the awesome trials ahead. More significantly, the assembly at Shechem is to indicate to them that to engage the challenge and to prevail is to follow in the noble path of their ancestors, who abandoned kith and kin and their corrupt, idolatrous ways and followed the God of Israel on a life-transforming odyssey.

THE HAZARDS OF IDOLATRY

The hazards of idolatry, a central and oft-repeated subject of Sefer Devarim as the people of Israel prepare to enter the land, are now forcefully spelled out once again. No forbearance is to be extended towards the idolatrous shrines, and no sympathy is to be shown for their rites. These many high places are to be demolished and completely obliterated, while the worship of the God of Israel is to be conversely concentrated at a single central location: "the place that He will choose" (12:5). Thus is the glaring difference between God and the pretenders to be highlighted, for the Deity is supreme and indivisibly one, His law an absolute and binding pronouncement. But his contenders, the multiple fetishes of earth and sky, wind, rain and sun, are at constant odds with each other, their hollow allures and shrill demands for devotion a vapid expression of the cruel relativism which they can never transcend:

Beware lest you be ensnared by them after they have been destroyed from before you, lest you enquire after their gods and say: 'How did these nations serve their gods? I will do so as well!' Do not do so for the sake of God your Lord, for everything that God despises and considers an abomination they have done for their gods, even burning their sons and daughters in the flames for them…(12:30-31).

Three distinct sections then follow in the text, all of them linked to this central theme and describing tragic contingencies that may endanger Israel in Canaan as a result of the corrosive effects of its polytheistic culture. First, the dangers of the false prophet are spelled out, one who would lead the people astray by claiming that he had been inspired in a dream or a vision to serve other gods (13:2-6). Then, the matter of the "inciter" is introduced. No mercy is to be shown to this provoker, a devotee to idolatry who might even be a close and beloved family member (13:7-12). Finally and most strikingly, the awful fate of the theoretical "city led astray" is detailed, an Israelite town in the new land that might adopt en masse the service of idolatry at the behest of base and brazen fellows from its midst (13:13-19). The harsh destiny of all three is similar; it testifies to the uncompromising war that the Torah here unleashes against all of those beliefs and practices that deny life's inherent sanctity. Idolatry, by decrying any notion of a higher purpose, disparages all attempts to foster the elemental decency that any absolute system of morality demands.

IDOLATRY IN CONTEXT

In order to better appreciate the Torah's almost single-minded focus on this matter, one must realize that in ancient times Israel was the ONLY people who championed (often reluctantly!) a monotheistic creed and its attendant corollary of a binding system of ethics. Though there had probably been throughout human history individuals who acknowledged the existence and ascendancy of a supreme being (though not necessarily a transcendent and incorporeal one), rarely if ever did this creed become translated into a concrete program of moral actions. The famed Akhenaton for instance, Pharaoh of Egypt c. 14th century BCE, was a devotee of the life-giving sun disk alone and an ardent and eloquent singer of its praises. This represented a revolutionary departure, for from time immemorial Egypt had been dedicated to the worship of a veritable pantheon of coarse and vulgar deities. Akhenaton is justifiably credited with many revolutionary accomplishments in the realms of temple building, art and theology, but there is nothing to indicate that his beliefs were ever translated into a heightened moral awareness or else sensitivity to the inviolability of human life. Significantly as well, Akhenaton's program was never widely accepted even among his own subjects, and after his death all of his reforms were undone by his successors.

Thus it was that Israel stood alone, proclaiming an idea and a way of life that stood in glaring and utter contrast to everyone and everything else that surrounded them. No wonder the Torah found it necessary to state emphatically and often the perils lurking in Canaan, the ideas and beliefs that could so easily overwhelm the nascent nation of Israel. As if the physical struggle to conquer and settle a new land were not enough, Israel would also have to contend with overwhelming cultural currents that everywhere proclaimed a competing and irreconcilable ideology to their own. They could survive only by being made aware of the grave menace to their existence and to their mission that idolatry represented, so that might assiduously avoid its pitfalls.

THE SECOND HALF OF THE PARASHA

Seamlessly, the Parasha of Re'eh now begins its second half by reintroducing the laws of kashrut or forbidden foods (Chapter 14) that had already been discussed in Sefer VaYikra (Chapter 11 – Parashat Shemini). The bridging text between the overthrow of the idolatrous town indicated above and the laws of consumption now presented is a concise but telling verse that admirably sums up the matter at hand by emphasizing the most salient feature of Israel's relationship with God – exclusivity:

…for you are a holy people to God your Lord, and God has chosen you to be His treasured nation from among all of the peoples that are upon the face of the earth…(14:2).

The Parasha then turns its attention to agricultural laws, to the subject of the so-called "Second Tithe" that is to be separated from the produce of the field and consumed at "the place that God will choose to cause His presence to dwell there" (14:23). Once again, the uniqueness and centrality of the one single shrine is emphasized, the only location where sacrifices to God and national worship are sanctioned. The related matter of the removal from one's possession of accumulated tithes is then introduced, and in that context the obligation to support society's weakest members – the Levite, the convert, the orphan and the widow – is highlighted. The laws of the Shemita or Seventh Year follow, with the associated prohibitions of working the field or claiming ownership of its produce, but here the focus unexpectedly and remarkably is shifted to a discussion of loans and interest. All outstanding loans are to be relieved in the seventh year, and no interest is ever to be leveled against a fellow Israelite by his creditor (15:2-3)! These astounding provisions, unparalleled in any other ancient collection of laws, demonstrate a rare concern for the poor and the vulnerable, those who would have been most likely, in rural societies, to have needed recourse to a loan in order to survive.

The gravity of the matter is underscored by the commands that follow, that demand not only the opening of one's pocketbook towards the poor, but the sensitivity of the heart as well:

If there will be a poor person in your midst, one of your countrymen in one of your cities in the land that God your Lord gives you, then you shall not harden your heart or clench your hand from your poor brother. Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him, and surely lend him all of his needs that he lacks…(15:7-8).

Hardness of the heart was, of course, the hallmark of the Pharaoh, and in preparation for the entry into their new land the people of Israel are called upon to build a different kind of state, one predicated upon sensitivity and kindness, and characterized by an overwhelming sense of obligation to relieve the plight of the poor and the powerless. Also the Hebrew slave is to be treated with respect, sent free after his six years of service, and even provided with parting gifts by his grateful master (15:12-14)!

Finally, the Parasha concludes with another description of the holiday cycle (16:1-17), this time (in contrast to VaYikra Chapter 23) concentrating upon the three pilgrim festivals exclusively. The Passover is to be observed in the springtime, the feast of Shavuot seven weeks later, and the festival of Succot in the fall when the produce of the field is gathered in and the temporary dwellings of the Israelites in the wilderness are to be recalled. Once again, the disadvantaged and the lonely are to be included in the celebrations, for Israel's observance of the national festivals is to be tempered by the collective memory of the enslavement in Egypt. One who has himself experienced oppression and alienation, the sting of the taskmaster's whip and the humiliation of his harsh words, can readily appreciate the downtrodden feelings of another. But from the Torah's perspective, identification with the plight of the poor or the feeble is insufficient – rather there must be a serious and comprehensive attempt to improve their lot. The collective memory of the cruel servitude in Egypt, liable to fade or else to become softened over time, is here redeemed from oblivion by being transformed into a serious program for social repair. And on this note our Parasha concludes.

CONCLUSION

Considering the parasha in its entirety, we may at first find it difficult to reduce it to a single theme. Certainly the two halves of the parasha seem to be addressing two wildly divergent topics. But perhaps the common thread that draws all of the subjects together is the recognition of the distinctive character of Israel and of its God. Loyal to an absolute, transcendent Deity who was indivisibly one, Israel was to worship that God in a manner that bespoke that uniqueness. A central place was to become the focal point for their devotions, a wholly special articulation of their God's exclusive attributes. And that exclusiveness was to find expression in their own national life as well, for they too were called upon to consciously separate themselves from all of the coarse and common beliefs and attendant values of the surrounding idolatrous nations, heartless systems of conduct that swirled around them like noxious tempests. Israel's society in Canaan was to be founded upon more solid foundations, on the bedrock of absolute morals that demanded of them responsible and compassionate behavior.

Remarkably, these attributes of ancient Israel, though they were often discarded by its less devoted members in favor of the new and the convenient, have survived. The words of the transcendent God have been etched upon our hearts and in our minds forever, and even when our national life has been tattered and torn, even when we have suffered exile from our land, the ideals of the Torah – the realization that ours is a unique and unparalleled tradition – have sustained us. The themes of Parashat Re'eh, the polemic against relativism and the championing in its place of ethical monotheism, will continue to support and to raise our flagging spirits until that time when we may fulfill God's commands with sincerity and love.

Shabbat Shalom