You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Re’eh.
From Reb Miles Krassen/Moshe Aharon
Parashat Re’eh (“See”) (Devarim 11:26-16-17)
See (Devarim 11:26). See what? See that the month of Elul is rapidly approaching, when the Divine Beloved is most accessible to every holy soul. We bless the New Moon of Elul on Shabbat Re’eh.
See that I Am is right this very moment placing before all of you a blessing and a kelalah. (Devarim 11:26). What does kelalah, usually understood as “curse,” mean in this verse?
It is so easy to see things in dualistic terms, but how does the Torah really want us to see? As Source of all that appears, Be-ing is constantly placing before us both what we may conceive of as a blessing and also what seems to us to be a curse. If we separate the apparently undesirable from the Source, duality becomes a curse. But if we can see that Be-ing is manifesting as both “blessing” and “curse,” then the kelalah (curse) becomes lighter (kalah) until it can be transformed through the special transformative practices of Hasidism and seen as itself an aspect of the blessing.
Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, taught the whole earth is full of kinyanechah (Psalms 124:4) means that every situation is an opportunity for acquiring “You” – You who pre-exists creation and You who alone truly exists even after creation. (Morning blessings).
It is a blessing when you really pay attention (Devarim 11:27) and see that what may appear as a curse, I AM is sending to you now, is really a great blessing in disguise by means of which we can establish a deeper bond with Be-ing Herself. The Maggid of Mezritch is really teaching us that everything that occurs to us, including all the negative traits, thoughts, and emotions that may arise within our experience, can be transformed. Paradoxically, these “bad” experiences offer the greatest opportunity and highest level of practice for developing our spiritual qualities and serving the Source of Be-ing.
Regardless of whatever occurs, it is a blessing whenever you really pay attention to the fact that Be-ing who G-ds you is now sending your way an opportunity for uniting with Her. (Devarim 11:27). It only becomes a curse if you don’t transform it into an opportunity for cleaving to Be-ing who G-ds you and allow yourself to be diverted from the way that I AM is directing you at that moment, to follow after other lower powers that are really not so impressive from the perspective of the truer mind state of da’at (when one is directly experiencing the Presence of Be-ing who G-ds you). (Devarim 11:28).
Rebbe Elemelekh of Lizhensk, one of the highest of all the students of the Maggid of Mezritch, had an even deeper way of seeing. Why is our parashah called “See” and not “hear” as in other cases where the Torah requires our heightened attention? Rebbe Elemelekh explains that hearing can easily be associated with fear. Just by hearing about something terrible, we can already experience a deep state of fear. But to truly experience love, the Beloved has to be Present. We have to actually experience the One we love. If the Beloved is not close enough to see, we may experience great longing, but not yet love itself. Love is experienced in the union of Lover and Beloved. In Hebrew, ahavah (love) and echad (one) have the same gematria (numerical value) to teach us that love implies oneness.
And so we learn, when you are in the non-dual state of seeing, I AM causes multiplicity to manifest before you (the plural lifneychem), and at that very moment both blessing and curse still arises (Devarim 11:26). In other words, even while resting in the ground of non-duality, “see” the duality that still arises within multiplicity. Realizing the non-dual view does not exempt us from our avodah.
The point is never to assume that avodah (living in a way that advances the realization of the Divine Dream) is ever finished. “Beginner’s Mind,” from the perspective of Hasidic teaching, means never assuming that one has become accomplished. Every moment is a new beginning. So even though one may experience the view of non-duality and really see everything without exception as an emanation of Be-ing who G-ds you, nevertheless, within time and space, as the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches, we still have to make a havdalah, a clear separation between blessing and curse. For as long as we can distinguish the difference between them, the process of evolving consciousness can be accelerated as we consciously transform our curses into blessings. How? Through seeing the curse as curse, relaxing into the hidden Presence of Be-ing that G-ds you at that very moment, and allowing the energy of the “curse” to softly lighten as it is released.
So, it will be a cause of joy when Be-ing that G-ds you takes you to the Ground of Be-ing that you are always approaching, so you can interface with it, while you clearly distinguish the blessing from the curse. For are they not both still arising on the other side of the crossing-over into non-duality place…? (Devarim 11:29-30).
For you are even now truly crossing over beyond Jordan (the place from which Binah descended) to come to the interface with the Ground of Be-ing, that Be-ing who G-ds you gives you to interface with and rest in. (Devarim 11:31)
When you are there, be mindful in doing everything that must be done, and that it is right to do, which I AM causes to manifest before you within multiplicity. (Devarim 11:32).
These are the things that must be done and that are right to do that you should be mindful of while resting in the Ground of Be-ing that Be-ing who G-ds your highest sefirot gives you to interface with as long as you are alive on this manifest earth. (Devarim 12:1).
Lose completely the outmoded old-paradigm view that divinity is exclusively found and served only in specifically demarcated holy places. Destroy all childish notions in your mind and heart of how to serve divinity, until not a trace remains. (Devarim 12: 2-3).
That’s not the way to serve Be-ing who G-ds you. But, rather, constantly be on the lookout for anyplace where Be-ing that G-ds you chooses to manifest the Shekhinah. (Devarim 12:4-5). Offer right there on the spot whatever you have, including your sacrifices, your generosity, your helping hand, and make your vows and commitments there. (Devarim 12:6).
And you will be nourished there by the energy of your service in the Presence of Be-ing who G-ds you, happy in all that you do and in every context within which Be-ing who G-ds you blesses you. (Devarim 12:7).
You won’t continue to act without Divine Guidance the way you do here now, because you have not yet reached the place of Inner Repose that Be-ing who G-ds you is bestowing upon you. (Devarim 12:9).
But when you cross over the Jordan (from which Binah descended) and you rest in the Ground of Be-ing that Be-ing who G-ds you is already always bestowing upon you, then you will no longer feel threatened by external enemies, but will rest secure(within the Ground of Be-ing). (Devarim 12:10).
And even if the place where Be-ing that G-ds you chooses to manifest the Shekhinah seems very distant from you” meaning that you are far from fathoming what the true non-dual view is, “just follow I AM’s direction and make lesser kinds of offerings from the resources that Be-ing bestows upon you and you will still be nourished by the holy sparks of your service even though you have not fully transcended your limited self, and this way you may yet acquire all that your soul truly desires.” (Devarim 12:21).
May we all be blessed to truly see how both what appears to us as blessing
and what appears as curse
arise from the One Ground of Be-ing Herself;
May that deep insight enable us to lighten all that appears as curse,
transforming everything to blessing,
that we may live on the angelic food of our soul’s holy sparks,
and in that way do our unique service
in all the sacred places revealed to us
with inner repose and full of joy.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
(aka Rabbi Miles Krassen)
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Re’eh
See, I have set before you this day, a blessing and a curse
the blessing –
if you shall listen to the commandments of God
which I command you this day
and the curse —
if you shall not listen to the commandments of God
but turn aside
out of the way
go after other gods
which you have not known. [Deut. 11:26 ff.]
Goodbye Moses our mother
farewell old friend
sorry you’re not making the trip with us
You are preparing us for life without you.
Wear your rubbers
stay out of the rain
drink plenty of water
say your prayers
everything you’ve taught us before.
Don’t walk around in wet socks.
It begins with See – the intuitive grasp of everything
the momentary aha!
switching to listen
the way a message unfolds in sequence
as – I – am – writing – this
and you are hearing it.
Two ways of knowing
the intuitive grasp
the momentary apprehension
and the careful unfolding through sequencing
seeing and listening.
See is singular
switching to plural
listen is plural
all the verbs and pronouns go plural.
Every singular has the power to go plural
to tilt the world
– the world may be that evenly balanced –
one singular on this side
shifts it here
one on that side
shifts it there. [B.T. Kiddushin 40b]
To choose blessing seems obvious
this from the Italian: we are always extremist
we can choose either blessing
or curse [Ovadia Sforno 1475 – 1555]
it is always either/or for us.
Not all of us –
Choose it this day
this day three times in the passage
it’s a daily choice
you choose wrong today
you can choose right tomorrow.
Something else, from the Gerer rebbe
you know what listening is don’t you
listening implies blessing. [Sefat Emet, the Gerer rebbe]
You know what blessing is –
when you attach to the life of Life
the heart of the world.
What specifically is the blessing?
What the curse?
You know which choices are blessing
you know which are curses
so forget about this last point.
Here is the blessing
found in the mud:
I will bless you and increase you as the earth,
as the sands of the seashore as the sea,
look at the algae now
and the horseflies buzzing around your face,
I will make you as great as the algae, as the grasshoppers.
Look up now to the sky
you will be as great as the stars
as the darkness too
you will be as great as the darkness
as the sand and the sea and the stars
the mud and the dark and the green
the sticky stuff on the surf
the early rains and the later rains
the mud and the mud the green the sand the dark.
You will be a blessing –
as great as the dark
as the sea
From Rav Kook
Re’eh: Private and Public Redemption
When Did the Exodus Occur?
When did the Jewish people leave Egypt? The appears to be a contradiction in the Torah’s account of the time of the Exodus. In Deuteronomy 16:1 we read, “It was in the month of spring that the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt at night .”
Clearly, the verse states that the Israelites departed in the night. However, the Torah previously stated that they left during the daytime: “On the day after the Passover sacrifice, the Israelites left triumphantly before the eyes of the Egyptians” (Num. 33:3).
So when did they leave — during the night, or in broad daylight, “before the eyes of the Egyptians”?
Two Stages of Redemption
The Talmud (Berachot 9a) resolves this apparent contradiction by explaining that both verses are correct. The redemption began at night, but it was only completed the following morning.
After the plague of the first-born at midnight, Pharaoh went to Moses, pleading that the Israelites should immediately leave Egypt. At that point, the Hebrew slaves were free to depart. Officially, their servitude ended during the night.
However, God did not want His people to sneak away ‘like thieves in the night.’ The Israelites were commanded to wait until daybreak, before proudly quitting their Egyptian slavery. Thus, the de facto redemption occurred during the day.
Night and Day
Rav Kook explained that there is an intrinsic correlation between these two time periods — night and day — and the two stages of redemption.
The redemption at night was an inner freedom. Egyptian slavery was officially over. However, this de jure freedom was not yet realized in practical terms. The joy of independence, while great, was an inner joy. Their delight was not visible to others, and thus corresponded to the hidden part of the day, namely, the night.
The second stage of redemption was their actual procession out of Egypt. This was a public event, before the eyes of the Egypt and the entire world. The completion of their freedom took place at daybreak, emphasizing the public nature of their liberation from Egyptian bondage.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 43-44)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
DEUTERONOMY 11:26 – 16:17
Re’eh begins by exhorting us to see clearly the choices that are laid out before us, and to choose
the way of blessing. This portion ends with a detailed description of the three festivals of pilgrimage.
RE’EH BEGINS BY COMMANDING each of us to “See!” – to open the eyes of our hearts and behold the world that has been set before us. This clear seeing is both our redemption and our blessing. Only when our vision is no longer obscured by false beliefs, fear, or the illusion of separateness, can we experience the freedom to choose the Blessing that is being offered to us. We are commanded fi rst to SEE, because without that clear vision, it may not be possible to discern blessing from curse.
The vantage point of Deuteronomy allows us to see where we have been – “the long strange trip it’s been,”1 – and the doors of possibility that open before us in response to our “seeing.” If we believe that we are powerless, if we believe that the Land of Milk and Honey is beyond our reach, then we will not see those doors of possibility. We will be stuck forever at the threshold.
WHEN I WAS a wild, imaginative youngster, passionately trying to express my visions of possibility, the grown-ups around me often responded by saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Intuitively, I understood that the process works the other way around. We usually see only what we already believe. And our beliefs are determined by the particular mind-state of the moment and our collective conditioning.
Re’eh tells us that at every moment, with eyes wide open, we can choose between Blessing and Curse. The blessing appears when we are attentive to the flow of God that pours through us. And the curse befalls us when we ignore that flow and instead “go after other gods that we did not know.”2 The word for Knowledge, “da’at,” refers to the kind of knowing that is intimate. The same word is used to denote “sex.” (To know someone in the “Biblical sense”) That God-force, which will open the possibility of blessing, is so close to us. (Mohammed says that God is as close as your jugular vein.)
THE GODS THAT WE PURSUE, the ones that are not intimately flowing through us and interpenetrating our essential self, distract us constantly. This predicament of feeling compelled to “go after other gods that we did not know” describes the mind-state of disconnection from Source. That state which sometimes manifests as addiction, despair, or cynicism (or just a diminished vitality), obscures the choice that is set before us. Instead of making that choice for blessing in each moment, we are compelled by an unnamed desperate hunger to be made whole, and then we make blind, false choices.
The freedom to choose between Blessing and Curse depends on our clear seeing, and our clear seeing depends on the mind-state that we’re in. Our mind-state is dependent upon how connected we are to Source in each moment.
The blessing of Re’eh is a vision of the reality that is set before us that encompasses and transcends all Duality. When we have accessed that clear vision, our choice is evident.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THERE IS A GRAMMATICAL INCONSISTENCY in the first sentence of Re’eh that may hold the secret to our exploration of vision. The text says, “See, I have set before you this day…”3 The imperative verb “see” is in the singular in the Hebrew phrasing, yet the “before you” is in the plural. In the journey of Torah, a mistake like this becomes a doorway. In the journey of Torah, a mistake like this calls us to face a spiritual challenge. What is the relationship between my personal awakening and our collective awakening?
We live at a time when our collective awakening, as communities, as nations, as a species has become crucial. As we confront the growing disruption of the global climate, the depletion of vital resources, the growing disparity between rich and poor, the rapid extinction of plant and animal species, and the spread of devastating weapons on our planet, it is clear that the human family must wake up and make fundamental changes in the way we treat each other and our environment. God sets before us (as a collective consciousness) the choice for blessing or curse. Yet, in approaching that collective awakening we are each addressed personally, in the singular. You personally must open your eyes. You personally are challenged to see.
WHEN I FIRST MOVED IN TO MY HOME, which is quite isolated high up in the mountains of New Mexico, I did not know a soul in the area. So one snowy morning soon after I had moved in, I was very surprised and delighted to hear the doorbell ring. At the door were two tenacious Jehovah’s Witnesses who were quoting from Isaiah and vigorously informing me about the rewards of Heaven, and the punishments of Hell.
I invited them inside, took out my Bible and happily began correcting their translation and interpretation of scripture. I felt blessed to have company and conversation about what mattered most. Together we surveyed the blessing and curse that was set before us.
Then something happened.
As I listened to their talk of Heaven as some far-off place, I felt as if a veil across my eyes were suddenly dropping away, and all at once I could “see.”
“Heaven is right here,” I exclaimed. “Don’t you see?”
I looked into their eyes, and for a moment I could swear that their veils had also dropped away. We shared a shiny heavenly vision and then a minute later I saw in their eyes a cloud of confusion, the veil returning. They thanked me and hurried outside.
I believe the power of my “seeing” opened their eyes, even if it was just for a moment. As each of us rises to the spiritual challenge of “seeing” clearly, the singular vision we are given can affect the mind-state and then the perception of others so that together we can acknowledge the fullness of the Reality that has been set before us.
1 ” Truckin’,” from the Grateful Dead album, American Beauty, 1970, lyrics by Robert Hunter
2 Deuteronomy 13:3
3 Deuteronomy 11:26
4 Quoted in The Art of Pilgrimage, Cousineau, Phil, p.14
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The God we know (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for this week’s portion back in 2006 at the now-defunct Radical Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses warns the Israelites against giving in to the temptation to worship “other gods whom you have not experienced” (elohim acherim asher lo-y’datam.) Even if that urging comes from “your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend” — if any of these dear people entices you to worship another god “whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced,” Just Say No.
Like most of Torah, this text presumes that other gods exist; they’re just not appropriate loci for worship. (Ah, monolatry.) “Pray to the God you know,” Moses seems to be saying. “Pray to the God Who brought you out of Egypt — the one your ancestors knew, the one you know so intimately and so well.”
But how many of us have really experienced God? How many of us have that kind of personal knowledge? And what can we do to make that knowledge a relevant part of our spiritual lives again?
It’s arguable that within mainstream Judaism, direct experience of God isn’t the point — and it certainly isn’t a prerequisite for Jewish practice. We do what we do because it is the Jewish path. Whether or not we feel confident that actual access to God is the endpoint, we follow the mitzvot anyway. Belief arises through action. If we waited until we felt called to act Jewishly, we might never get there — but if we act Jewishly even absent that “call,” we can bring the call into being for ourselves.
For many Jews today, though, that answer is dissatisfying — and can serve as a distancing factor that keeps us from engagement with the tradition in the first place. Our culture privileges direct experience; it makes sense that in this area of our lives, we feel a particular longing for something we can access in our hearts. We want God to be at the center of our practice. We want our practice of mitzvot to follow from a preexisting closeness to God, not the other way around. We want, as this week’s Torah portion suggests, to be in relationship with a God Who we already know.
Of course, relationship with God — or knowledge of God, to use the terminology of this week’s portion — is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. If I understand myself to be in continual, evolving relationship with the Source of Being, everything I experience comes through that lens. But if I find God to be distant and unknowable, that’s a self-perpetuating phenomenon, too.
That sense of distance may have something to do with expectations. We feel we “should” encounter God in our texts and our liturgy: a loaded notion, because if by chance we don’t, it’s easy to feel that we are somehow deficient or that God isn’t available to us…which can be especially stressful, even painful, as we approach the Days of Awe, a season during which we expect (and intend) to be especially connected with our Source.
One solution is to let go of expectations, and connect with God in whatever way opens itself to us. Maybe that means prayer, offering the words of one’s heart to whatever one understands God to mean. Maybe that means encountering the splendor of the natural world, waterfalls and mountains and rolling hills. Maybe that means finding holiness in relationship with a beloved friend, and extrapolating from that sanctified relationship a sense that all relationships can be sanctified.
And then we can live up to Moses’ exhortation. Instead of harnessing ourselves to other people’s priorities, other people’s understandings of who and what is worthy of worship, we can live out our covenant with God from a place that’s authentic, rooted, and unshakable. May it be so!
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Times of Our Lives
To the physicist it is the fourth dimension, to the mystic it is the first creation. To most of us, time is simply a faceless tyrant, an abstract force impelling us from a receding past through a fleeting present to an ever-elusive future.
But viewed from the perspective of Torah, the seemingly homogeneous plain of time is revealed as a complex, multi-faceted terrain. The hour, the day, the week, the month, the year, the millennium—these are not arbitrary grids imposed on time to make it more “manageable,” but demarcations intrinsic to its very nature, each defining an area of time with its own characteristics and qualities.
Thus the Torah tells us that the seven days of the week are embodiments of the seven divine attributes—love, severity, beauty, victory, splendor, foundation and sovereignty—which define G-d’s involvement with our reality, as established in the original seven days of creation. We also learn that the twelve hours of the day and the twelve months of the year correspond to the twelve configurations of the divine name, which serve as channels for various divine energies that vitalize our existence and shape our lives. The same applies to all time designations employed by the Torah: as G-d’s blueprint for creation, the Torah does not merely delegate certain observances and experiences to certain times, but, in doing so, also describes the nature and structure of time as forged by the Creator.
The concept of the month as an embodiment of a certain characteristic or quality implies a unique perspective on the Jewish calendar.
The calendar is commonly regarded as an expanse of several hundred ordinary days “dotted” with festivals and dates of special import. In truth, however, the festivals are not islands of poignancy in a sea of vapid time, but expressions of the spiritual character of their respective months. The eight days of Passover represent an intensification of the quality of the month of Nissan, the month of redemption; Purim is a one-day eruption of the unbridled joy that characterizes the month of Adar; the awe of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the joy and unity experienced on Sukkot are various elements in the “coronation” of G-d as king of the universe, which is the theme of the month of Tishrei; and so on.
In other words, the twelve months of the calendar are twelve time-qualities which flow into each other, each with its unique personality and character. The festivals are the peaks and plateaus of these time-qualities—points at which a particular month’s properties achieve a greater intensity and emphasis.
The last Shabbat of each month is Shabbat Mevarchim HaChodesh—the “Shabbat that blesses the month.” On this Shabbat, a special prayer is recited which names the coming month, identifies the day (or days) of its Rosh Chodesh, and beseeches G-d to “renew it… for life and for peace, for gladness and for joy, for deliverance and for consolation.”  According to Chassidic teaching, the “blessing of the month” evokes the flow of sustenance and spiritual energy for the coming month.
Thus, the final days of each month form a juncture in the terrain of time in which two time-qualities overlap. For example, this Shabbat is the 29th of Av; as such, it is an integral part of the month of Av, a time-segment whose quality is mourning and consolation—mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple and the breakdown in our relationship with G-d that this represents, and consolation in the potential for renewal that lies in every regression. On the other hand, it is also the Shabbat that calls forth the qualities of the coming month of Elul—a month characterized by divine compassion and intimacy with G-d.
The same is true of every Shabbat Mevarchim: rooted in one month and time-quality, it evokes the time-quality of the following month, stimulating the flow of spiritual energy that saturates the next of the twelve time-segments that comprise the calendar.
Therein lies a lesson in how we are to experience and utilize the various time periods of our lives.
Often, we reach a point in our lives at which we are inspired to “turn OVER a new leaf”: to reassess our past, and readjust, or even radically transform, our prior vision and approach to life. All too often, this is accompanied with a “break” from the past, a disavowal of all prior achievement; it is as if all we have done up to this point must be eradicated to give way to our “new” self.
But as the monthly Shabbat Mevarchim teaches us, different and even antithetical qualities of time form a chain in which each link is an outgrowth of its predecessor. Yes, a new year, month, week, day, hour or moment must always provoke us to a new understanding, a new feeling, a new achievement: the very fact that we have passed from one time-frame to another means that we must exploit the new potential implicit in this new environment. At the same time, however, we must appreciate how each new moment is “blessed” by the moment before, which nourishes and enriches its very different neighbor with its own qualities and achievements.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Sivan 28, 5735 (June 7, 1975) and on other occasions
Wendy’s Comment: This is the link to the two other commentaries on Re’eh on the
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
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”.
Shabbat Shalom!!! Chodesh Tov Umevorach!!!
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
Reb Sholom Brodt
Do Not Consider Yourself Too Poor To Help
“Lest there may be amongst you an evyon- (one who sees and desires everything and always feels lacking and unfulfilled)” (Devarim 15:4)
This opening phrase is somewhat unusual because of the word ‘b’cha’ – instead of simply saying “lest there be a poor person”, it says “lest there be a poor person in you[r midst].” On the literal level we derive halachot from this particular phrasing, namely laws concerning the circles of priority in the giving of tzedakkah; the poor who are closest to you in a familial way or communally have priority over the more distant poor.
There are many levels of poverty- some more real, some less so. There are relatively poor people who don’t consider themselves poor and there are rich people who think they are poor. Perceived poverty takes on a certain reality, and is recognized as significant in the laws of Tzedakkah.
There are seven Hebrew nouns for the poor person: ‘oni'[ayin-nun-yud], ‘evyon'[alef-bet-yud-vav-nun], ‘miskeyn'[mem-samech-caf-nun], ‘dal'[daled-lamed], ‘moch'[mem-caf], ‘rosh'[reish-shin]. Each of these nouns expresses a different aspect of poverty. The difference between the ‘oni’ and the ‘evyon’ is that while the ‘oni’ may in fact be poorer than the ‘evyon’, the ‘evyon’ because he sees and desires much more, also suffers more than the ‘oni’, and therefore must be helped first.
In order to function well and do our best we need to be equipped with our basic necessities and we need to feel that we have them. Yankel may have more than Shloimie, but if Yankel feels that he doesn’t have what he needs and desires, he likely will not function as well as Shloimie. We’re not talking about the optimist vs. the pessimist; we’re talking about a human condition that is true for most of us if not for all of us. We need to perceive ourselves as being equipped and able to handle life challenges.
I once heard this very interesting social observation. Not that long ago before our bubbies and zaydies came to America the common Jewish family consisted of 8-12 children and they lived in tiny two room homes. Yet there was always room for two hungry guests at dinner. Then we came to America where we got to live in larger homes, and there was no longer any room for the poor at our tables. Then the homes grew larger, the families grew smaller, each child got to have his/her own room and the homes were no longer big enough for families to stay together.
This week I B”H saw the following teaching in the Chassam Sofer. As many know, there are times when you things are B”H very good with you and when approached for tzedakkah you feel capable and glad to help out. But then there are times that either because the marketplace is down or because the demands that are coming your way are greater than usual, you feel that you cannot be of much help. In some sense you feel that you are not sufficiently wealthy or ‘too poor’ to be of help- such poverty is within you because of your self-perception.
In saying “lest there be a poor person in you” the Torah is teaching us not to perceive ourselves as being too poor to help another when requested. Even when you may not be of much help financially, do not think that you can’t be of help. Do not consider yourself poor! There are other very significant ways to be of real help.
The very fact that Hashem has presented you with a request and an opportunity to help someone means that in Hashem’s eyes you can be of help in some way. Thinking of yourself as being “too poor” to help will only interfere.
The Rusty Penny
Retold By Tuvia Bolton
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, (1745-1812, founder of Chabad Chassidism) was raising money to ransom Jewish prisoners.
He went first to a city that was famous for its miser. It seems that this stingy man, despite his considerable wealth, was loath to share his blessings, no matter how worthy or urgent the cause. Rabbis and beggars alike avoided his home. Anyone who did unwittingly end up on his doorstep was offered a single rusty copper coin, which even the most desperate pauper would promptly refuse.
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman arrived in the town, the elders of the community graciously received him. But when he announced that he wanted to visit the house of the miser and wanted two rabbis to accompany him, he was met with serious resistance. The Rebbe was adamant, however, and they finally acquiesced and gave him the escort he requested.
The next afternoon the three of them were standing in front of the miser’s mansion. Before knocking on the door, the Rebbe turned to his companions and requested that they not utter a word, no matter what they hear or see. Several moments later they were sitting in the luxurious front room and the owner was returning from his safe with a small velvet money pouch.
“Yes,” said the rich man. “A touching story indeed! Widows and orphans in captivity. Ah, the suffering of the Jewish people! When will it all end? Here Rabbi, take my humble donation.”
To the miser’s surprise, the Rebbe seemed pleased by the gift. He was actually smiling at him warmly as he put the coin into his pocket and said, “Thank you Mister Solomons, may G-d bless and protect you always.” The Rebbe then proceeded to write him a receipt, adding all sorts of blessings in a most beautiful script.
“Thank you again, my friend,” said the Rebbe as he stood and warmly shook the man’s hand looking him deeply in the eyes with admiration. “And now,” he added, turning to his two companions, “we must be on our way. We have a lot of collecting to do tonight.”
As the three rabbis walked to the door, the Rebbe turned and bade his host yet another warm farewell. “You should have thrown it back in his face,” hissed one of the rabbis after they heard the door close behind them.
“Don’t turn around and don’t say a word,” whispered the Rebbe as they walked down the path to the front gate.
Suddenly they heard the door opening behind them and the miser calling: “Rabbis, rabbis, please come back for a minute. Hello, hello, please, I must speak to you, please… please come back in.”
In a few minutes they were again sitting in the warm, plush drawing room, but this time the rich man was pacing back and forth restlessly. He stopped for an instant and turned to the Rebbe. “Exactly how much money do you need to ransom these prisoners?”
“About five thousand rubles,” the Rebbe replied.
“Well here is one thousand… I have decided to give one thousand rubles, you may count it if you want,” said the miser as he took a tightly bound stack of bills from his jacket pocket and laid it on the table. The other rabbis were astounded. They stared at the money and were even afraid to look up at the miser, lest he change his mind.
But the Rebbe again shook Mr. Solomons’ hand, warmly thanking him, and wrote him a beautiful receipt replete with blessings and praises, exactly like the first time.
“That was a miracle!” whispered one of the rabbis to the Rebbe as they left the house and were again walking toward the gate. Once more the Rebbe signaled him to be still. Suddenly the door of the house again opened behind them. “Rabbis, please I have changed my mind, please come in once more. I want to speak with you,” Mr. Solomons called out.
They entered the house for a third time as the miser turned to them and said, “I have decided to give the entire sum needed for the ransom. Here it is, please count it to see that I have not made a mistake.”
“What is the meaning of this?” wondered the Rebbe’s astonished companions after they had left the rich man’s home for the third time that evening. “How did you get that notorious miser to give 5000 rubles?”
“That man is no miser,” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “No Jewish soul truly is. But how could he desire to give, if he never in his life experienced the joy of giving? Everyone to whom he gave that rusty penny of his threw it back in his face.”
From Rabbi Gerson Winkler
A Teaching from Gershon…
A long time ago, we were instructed to dedicate to God a tenth of the yield of our field and the firstborn of our flocks, to God. But since God doesn’t eat, these were conveyed to those in sacred service as follows: the first, second, fourth and fifth year of every seven-year cycle (Shemittah) the tithing is gifted to the Kohayn and the Levite, the local ritual facilitators, since they had no land of their own apportioned to them among the tribes (Numbers 18:8-21). In each of these cycles we were also instructed to take yet a second tithing from our harvest (Deuteronomy 14:22), this one for ourselves, a participatory rite which required us to feast on this portion of our yield at the site of the sacred altar, as a gesture of acknowledgment that our bounty came from God: “And you shall eat before Adonai your God in the place God has chosen for the dwelling of Its Name there, the tithing of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and your sheep, so that you might learn to be in awe of Adonai your God all the days” (Deuteronomy 14:23).
During the third and sixth year, the tithing went directly to the poor (Deuteronomy 14:29). In the seventh cycle there was no tithing at all because we were forbidden from working the land altogether, its total yield abandoned in the harvest season that year for anyone in need and for the wild animals of the field (Leviticus 25:3-7).
Now, let me share with you one of the sweetest and least known stories of ancient Judaism.
Once there was a farmer who observed the practice of tithing diligently, donating a tenth of his produce and the firstborn of his flocks every year to the local Kohayn, the Levites, the poor, and for his own ritual at the altar, all in its appointed time as prescribed by the Torah. When it was his time to pass on from this world, he summoned his son and conveyed to him his last wish, that he continue this practice with great care, no matter what. After the elder passed on, his son took over the farm and, in respect to his father’s wishes, continued the practice of tithing his fields and flocks year after year in accordance with the specifics, just as his father had done. And, like his father before him, he continuously prospered.
And as he prospered, watching his flocks and produce multiply manifold, he became stricken with a little greed attack and found it increasingly difficult to let go of what he received. And even though his field had gifted him with an ample harvest, still, as he was gathering his produce, he had a small moment of worrying about tomorrow and instead of taking a full tenth of his harvest for the Kohayn, he reduced it by fifteen per-cent. The following year, his fields – in turn — yielded fifteen per-cent less, and in lambing season a few less lambs were born, and so, growing even more anxious about the future, he shrunk his tithing ritual by thirty-percent. A year later, his land yielded thirty per-cent less, and so he tithed even less of that for the Kohayn. Eventually, his field yielded him only as much as his original tenth, in other words a tenth of what it yielded originally, and he had no choice but to keep it all for himself in order to survive.
And so there he sat in his field amid his pickings that autumn, gazing painstakingly at the many acres of land before him which had once been brimming with produce, now barely bringing forth more than a tenth of what it used to. He turned his head toward his pastures and lamented about how small his flocks were, speckling the countryside here and there when once they had blanketed the hills as far as the eye could see. It then dawned on him why he had fallen on such hard times. The less he gave to others, the less he received for himself; the less he tithed, the less he harvested. Because the ritual was very much intended to perpetuate an awareness that what we achieve is enabled by the benevolence of God, not solely by our own strength and might (Deuteronomy 8:17). By avoiding sharing of what we have to others in need because we’re concerned about tomorrow, we wrest our fate out of God’s hands and claim exclusive control over it ourselves. In turn, the universe says, fine, it’s all yours to play Roulette with.
But whatever the lesson was, now it was too late for this hapless farmer. What was done was done. And there he sat, sulking with remorse, his anxiety about the future gnawing at him more than ever.
Just then, as he sat there in the autumn twilight, his tearful face in his blistered hands, a huge entourage of women, men, and children appeared in the horizon and converged on his land from the nearby village. The sulking farmer lifted his head and rubbed his weary eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. Nope. It was for real. Several dozen people were approaching him, singing joyfully while beating on drums and tambourines. They were friends, relatives, Levites, even a few total strangers, with the village Kohayn in the lead — all dancing across his pathetically bare field, and all of them dressed in pure white linen and carrying huge baskets of food as if they were coming to party with him.
He rose slowly and raised his arms more in puzzlement than in greeting. “What is this!?” he cried out as they surrounded him. “You’ve come to see a man who has sinned against God and neglected his sacred duties to the Kohayn? And you come to him dressed in white, yet!?”
“No,” replied the Kohayn. “On the contrary! We’ve come to celebrate you! For in the past, you were the farmer and God was the Kohayn to whom you brought your tithings. Now, however, God has become the farmer and you have become the Kohayn, seeing that God has brought you a tithe’s worth [of the farm’s original yield]” (Midrash Tanchuma, R’ey, Chapter 7).
Is there anything more beautiful, more touching than this scenario? Rather than converge on this man with chastisements and criticism, rather than pump him full of guilt and shame, the community unites and draws up an entirely different plan: Find a way to turn the whole thing around, to transform his decades-old sin into a holy climax, where he becomes not the recalcitrant donor but the sacred recipient of the tithing ritual. And who is turned into the donor instead? God. For the land, after all, belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23), and the farmer was gifted with a tithe’s worth from the divine land owner Itself, thus rendering him like a Kohayn, or a Levite, worthy of receiving this sacred gift.
And so, through this delicate, loving, non-judgmental celebration by his community, the farmer was able to save face while being gently reminded that the earth belongs to God, not him, and that the yield of the land is therefore in the hands of God, not solely determined by how successful a farmer he was. And that when you give, you gain, not only prosperity, but faith and trust. And that the only thing you lose by giving is anxiety about tomorrow. As the first-century Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol put it: “One who has bread in his basket today and asks ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ is of little faith” (Talmud Bav’li, Sotah 48b).
At its core, however, this story teaches us how important it is for a community, a family, a partner in a relationship, a parent, etc. to take the time to brainstorm ever-innovative ways of bringing something urgent or difficult to someone’s attention in ways that will not only correct them if they are in error but that will accomplish this while at the same time avoiding the suppression of their self-worth. “While your left hand pushes away, let your right hand draw near,” taught the sages (Talmud Bav’li, Sotah 47a).
And so, the tight tither loosened up and tithed happily ever after.
Why We Close our Eyes When we say Shema Yisrael
We close our eyes
Listen Israel —
Adonai Is Eloheinu
Rachamim Is din –
He is she
You are me
The world does not evidence
its G*dliness easily.
To hear implies blessing [Sefat Emet on Re’eh]
Blessing – when we attach
To the life of all Life
Ego bye bye
The I recedes and we meet there
Elevated by the diminishing self —
Attached to the heart of the world
Essence to essence –
We become little.
This is blessing.
The I is a thief [Menachem Mendel of Kotzk]
It snatches the partial and mistakes it
For the whole.
Only Everything is everything [Marvin Gaye]
We not only cover them –
We take out the I’s entirely
When we pray
From Melissa Carpenter
Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead
August 22, 2011
You are children to God, your god; you shall not inflict cuts on yourselves, and you shall not shave a bald patch for the dead between your eyes. Because you are a holy people to God, your god … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)
karchah = a patch of skin shaved bald
beyn eynekha = between your eyes
In this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (See), Moses continues exhorting the Israelites to follow all of God’s rules, even after they have conquered the promised land of Canaan. Among the laws Moses revisits is the prohibition in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28 and 21:5, where God tells Moses that when the people enter the land, they must not cut the edges of their heads, ruin the edges of their beards, tattoo their skin, or shave a bald patch on their heads.
When Moses brings up the topic again in this week’s Torah portion, he says God prohibits cutting gashes in the skin, and shaving between the eyes as a sign of mourning.
Yet shaving is not inherently a problem. Leviticus calls for priests and Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated, for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from grapes and haircuts is completed, and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community.
Thus shaving (as opposed to cutting the skin or tattooing) is sometimes required to mark a person’s passage from one status in the community to another. It is only forbidden to shave “between your eyes” as a sign of bereavement.
The custom of shaving the head and/or beard as a sign of mourning appears a number of times in the Torah, though priests are not permitted to do so. This mourning practice, common in Biblical times, was ruled out a thousand years later in the Talmud. So for the last 1,500 years, Jewish mourners are not supposed to shave; they must let their hair (and beard) grow for the first 30 days of mourning.
However, in this week’s Torah portion, it is only the spot “between your eyes” that must not be shaved in mourning. Some translators interpret this as meaning “your forehead” or “the front of your head”. Yet Biblical Hebrew has a word for forehead, meitzach, and uses it in other contexts. So the phrase “between your eyes” must mean something else. I searched for other Torah references to anything between a person’s eyes, and the only ones in the whole canon, from Genesis to Chronicles 2, are references in Exodus and Deuteronomy to placing God’s teaching as totafot “between your eyes”.
Nobody knows what totafot are; I’ve seen the word translated as “ornaments”, “frontlets”, “symbol”, “circlets”, and “bands”, but these are only guesses, since scholars still haven’t pinned down the definition. Whatever totafot are, they contain a written copy of some of God’s teaching, and are placed right between the eyes—not above the hairline where Jews place the head tefillin with its tiny parchment scrolls, but over the pineal gland, the “third eye” of Asian mystics.
Since the purpose of wearing totafot is to remember the Torah (which, literally, means “teaching”), it seems appropriate to place it between your eyes, so everything you see will be experienced through an awareness of God’s teaching.
Then what does it mean to shave the very spot where you are supposed to place the reminder of the Torah?
Some group in Canaan must have responded to a death by shaving the ends of the eyebrows closest to the nose, giving the face an unnatural look and making the mourning even more obvious to others than if you shaved your head bald, or shaved off your beard. But for the people of Israel, remembering God trumps remembering a dead human being.
In this week’s portion, the prohibition against shaving between the eyes for the dead is bracketed by “you are children to God” and “you are a holy people”. God comes first.
Is this because one’s relationship to God is more important than one’s relationship to any human? That’s what rabbis Obadiah Sforno (16th century) and Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century) say in their commentaries.
But maybe the real issue is death. The book of Genesis says humankind (adam) is created in God’s image. Although God creates both life and death, God itself is the “living God” or the “God of life”. Whatever God is in the Torah, God is not dead.
Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”. Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not allowed to give up on our own lives. We must choose life, and continue with our own holy journey. The spot between the eyes becomes a reminder of this holy imperative.
The next time I’m tempted by despair, I want to touch the spot between my eyes, and make that touch a reminder of the holy journey—a virtual totafot.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Re’eh
Seeing Our Unique Circumstances as Blessing
Rav DovBer Pinson
This weeks Torah reading opens with the words;
“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, as you listen the commandments of Hashem…I command you this day; And a curse, if you do not listen …turn aside from the path…this day…”(11: 26 -28)
“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse;”
To behold is to really see, to look at life and recognize that everything within it is perfectly in place to help us achieve blessings.
That is, all of life’s circumstances are there to help us live most authentically and be in touch with our deepest nature, which is the desire to complete and fulfill our purpose.
This is the blessing. Following your own inner path.
Everything within and around us is conspiring to help us achieve our purpose. Our genetics, parents, upbringing, education, environment, nature and nurture, the entire context of life is formed so that we can fill the context with content of our choice.
Our entire scope of reality is working toward helping us attain our soul purpose.
“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse”
Life is set before us, we can choose to see the blessings and recognize that everything is working to help us be most authentically ‘me’. Even challenges and obstacles are only there to provoke us to marshal our deeper strengths and resources and persevere.
The blessing is the enlarging of ourselves, being more ‘me’ and living from the place of our purpose. We are naturally given the tools and from our first moments, placed in a conducive environment in which we can articulate our soul purpose, and thus, our blessings.
If we choose, and we do have the choice, to not listen to life and separate ourselves, we deviate from who we really are and this is the curse.
As there are not two people alike, there are not two moments alike. There never was nor will there ever be another you, with your unique soul purpose, the same is true with this very moment.
The most important time is now and the most valuable person is you. You and Now!
The Energy of the Week:
Seeing Our Unique Circumstances as Blessing
This week we receive the strength to understand our unique journey as a blessing, guiding us to our authentic self and soul purpose.
We choose to see our unique circumstances in life as a guide to our authentic self.
Recognizing that everything in our life, both past and present, is part of our individual tikkun/path to wholeness, and is there to help us actualize our soul purpose, everything becomes illuminated as blessing.
The context of your life – be it the parents and family you were born into, the financial situation you were born into, the personality and skills you came into the world with – all these are the blessings that will enable you to fulfill your individual tikkun on this earth.
View the context of the life you were given as your unique blessings and the content you fill it with will be blessed as well.
Re-eih: Two Paths
August 14, 2012
Moses opens this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), by giving a choice to the Israelites camped at the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into Canaan.
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of God, your god, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of God, your god, and you rebel from the path that I command you today, to walk after other gods that you did not know. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:26-28)
The Torah does not say here what material results will come from God’s blessing or God’s curse. But results can be inferred, either by looking at a parallel passage in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, or by paying attention to several words in the passage above that are usually unimportant, and often mistranslated.
asher = that, which, whom
im = if
First let’s compare the warning in this week’s Torah portion with the two alternatives presented in Leviticus. If you follow my decrees and observe my commandments and do them (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3), God says, using the plural form of “you”, then God will make it rain in the right seasons, so you will have abundant crops and eat your fill; God will grant peace in your land, keeping away both vicious beasts and swords; God will give you many offspring; and God will always be present in your midst.
But if you do not listen to me and you to do not do all these commandments (Leviticus 26:14), God continues, then God will afflict you with diseases, and crop failure, and wild beasts that kill your children and livestock, and enemies with swords who besiege you until you commit cannibalism and starve to death.
Words for blessing and curse are absent from the passage in Leviticus, but elsewhere in the Torah the word brakhah (“blessing”) implies an increase in fertility, health, and prosperity–as indicated in the list of results for following God’s decrees and commandments in Leviticus. The word for “curse” used in this week’s Torah portion, kelalah, implies diminishment in status and power, as well as disgrace and falling into a lower state of being. These conditions do seem to be graphically illustrated in the results given in Leviticus for disobeying God’s commandments.
Furthermore, obeying God’s commandments is what makes the difference in both the passage in Leviticus and the one in Deuteronomy this week. So it would be reasonable to assume that the two alternatives in Leviticus represent the results of God’s blessing and God’s curse.
Yet some Torah commentary draws a different conclusion, based on the words asher (“that”) and im (“if”).
In Leviticus, both the good result and the bad result are introduced by “if”; if you people obey God, then you will be collectively rewarded in life; if you people do not listen and do not obey every commandment, then you will be collectively punished in life. (Individual exceptions are not addressed, and as usual in the Torah, no reference is made to any reward or punishment after death.)
But this week, in Deuteronomy, the original Hebrew says: The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of God, your god, that I command you today. (11:27) Some English translations change the word asher (“that”) into an “if”. But two major 19th-century commentators, the mystical rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (in Sefat Emet) and the scientific grammarian rabbi Meir Leibush (a.k.a. Malbim), argued that the original sentence means the blessing is listening to and obeying God’s commandments. Virtue is its own reward, because listening to God and doing good deeds elevates and expands your soul. Sefat Emet says that the choice between the path of blessing and the path of curse lies before everyone, at all times; and the reward for choosing the right path is to advance to the next choice, the next opportunity to choose good, as you climb higher on the ladder.
This interpretation speaks to me, not only because I care about the original words in Hebrew, but also because it moves from the communal blessing implied by the Torah’s plural “you” to an inidividual, personal blessing. If you live in a community of people who make bad choices, you will inevitably suffer materially for their mistakes and misdeeds. In a material sense, you will be cursed. Nevertheless, if you, personally, choose what is good and right, you will get the more important reward of becoming a better person.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen/Moshe Aharon
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
From The Hebrew College
Rabbi Daniel Klein
Seeing Past, Present and Future On the Road to Justice (Parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
“See”: This simple command opens this week’s parasha and gives it its name, Re’eh. “See: I place before you today the blessing and the curse.” This commandment introduces a moving teaching about how God’s commandments are set before us, and will lead to blessings if we fulfill them and curses if we abandon them. But the opening word is entirely unnecessary; the core message about blessings and curses is clear without the instruction to see. Why is it there?
Last year, I heard a report on NPR about the new Google glasses, investigating whether or not drivers should be allowed to wear them. The glasses allow you to see a computer screen more or less floating in front of your right eye, slightly above your line of vision. A person interviewed as he was driving while wearing them said that “The layer [of text you see] is transparent, so your eye does a good job of seeing through it while also staring at it.”
But the brain doesn’t work that way; we may think we are seeing both, the text and the road in front of us, but we are not. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, put it this way: “You think you’re monitoring the road at the same time, when actually what you’re doing [is] you’re relying on your brain’s prediction that nothing was there before, half a second ago — that nothing is there now,” he says. “But that’s an illusion. It can often lead to disastrous results.”
Astounding. What the wearer sees as the road is actually a past perception of the road, predicted as the future, and presented as the present-and she is entirely unaware this is happening. Our own brains can delude us.
This mental assumption, that the past will be the future, goes far beyond the experience of wearing Google glasses, and is profoundly disturbing — not only because of the “disastrous results” it can lead to on the roadways, but also because of what it says about how we function as human beings. How often are we unconsciously misperceiving what is in front of us, filling in the blanks with what we have already know instead of actually directing our attention to the present? Technology is just one significant facilitator of this phenomenon that is more fully the progeny of that pernicious myth called multitasking.
How can we separate the blessing from the curse, the good from the bad, life instead of death, if we don’t even let ourselves see what is, now? “See,” look, pay attention, the Torah commands us — because actually seeing is hard and complicated, and requires extraordinary effort to battle both external and internal distractions.
But texting and multitasking, of course, are not the only things that obscure our vision in ways that make us believe our past experiences will define our future. In his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the victims of the shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC in June, President Obama movingly described the grace God had visited upon us through this tragedy. The grace he referred to is the undeserved gift of God. In Jewish terms, we might call this the flow of God’s chesed, lovingkindness, that is always available to us and that we often receive through no merit of our own.
God “has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind,” President Obama said. “He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same.”
Through this tragedy, our eyes have been opened to ways in which racism is still thriving in our country. Many of us had been blind to the pain caused by the ongoing, sanctioned, public display of the Confederate flag, and to the persistent systemic racial injustices that enable white people to live with greater dignity and affluence than black people and other minorities. The shooting in the AME Baptist Church, and the repeated incidents of police brutality against black people that have received so much attention this year, have opened our eyes to some of the gaps between where we are as a country and where we want to be.
Like the homeless person on the street that we walk by or step over, the Confederate flag and racial injustice have been hiding in plain sight. We have failed to pay attention to them; we have come to experience them simply as reality – same as it ever was, and will be. In effect, we stopped seeing them.
Maybe we have to do this at times, as an inevitable coping strategy. The pain of living with eyes open to all of the injustices that are seeming fixtures of our society is too painful, especially when the problems are so complex that they seem almost irreparable, inevitable. Perceiving reality as it is, paying attention, can be painful.
But it is infinitely worse to be a victim of that reality: to be homeless; to live in a high-crime, high-poverty area and experience continued discriminatory housing policies that result in segregation; to be a student in a failing school that is underfunded because our system of educational funding rewards wealthier areas with more resources and punishes the poor; to be a victim of police brutality and a criminal justice system that punishes minorities disproportionately.
See, says the Torah. See clearly what is in front of you. Open your eyes. Allow them to be opened by the grace of circumstance, and by deliberately directed attention.
Awareness alone can’t solve our problems. When we perceive reality unobscured by our resigned acceptance of an unjust status quo, we often feel a mess of uncertainty about how to proceed. But to choose life (as the Torah commands us later, in Deuteronomy 30:19), to make choices (however complex) that push us towards a better world, we must begin by being aware. We must look. We must see. When we do so — and allow ourselves to be transformed and our hearts opened — in the words of President Obama, “If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Deep Power of Joy
Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
Mourning: The Body and the Soul
This week’s Torah portion outlines certain acts of mourning that were practiced by the nations in those times. Some would make cuts in their body, while others would tear out hair between their eyes. The Torah forbids such actions, saying: “You are children of God, do not cut yourselves, nor tear out hair between your eyes over a death.” (1)
Similarly, in Kedoshim, the Torah tells us: “You should not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am HaShem.” (2) These mitzvot teach that it is wrong to make a cut in one’s body as a sign of mourning. In contrast, there is a positive commandment to tear one’s clothing on the occasion of the death of a close relative (this is known as kriah). The Shulchan Aruch(3) states: “Someone whose relative has died, (if it is a relative that one is required to mourn over), must tear [their garment] for them.” (4) It is striking how very similar actions of tearing are regarded so differently in Jewish law, to the extent that cutting one’s flesh is forbidden and yet, tearing one’s clothing is obligatory.(5)
In order to understand the difference between cutting one’s body and cutting one’s clothing, it is necessary to analyze the first event in the Torah in which clothing plays a role – that of Adam’s sin. The Torah tells us that before the sin, Adam and Eve did not wear any clothes, yet they felt no shame.(6) However, after they ate from the fruit, they then realized that they were naked and they wore clothes to cover their shame.(7) What change took place as a result of the sin? We know that man is comprised of two, contrasting features; a body and a soul. It seems that it was always understood that it was inappropriate for one’s essence to be exposed, and therefore there was the necessity of some kind of ‘covering’, or clothing. Before the sin, Adam primarily identified himself as a soul, and his body took on the role of a kind of ‘clothing’ for the soul. Accordingly, there was no need for garments to act as clothing for the body, because the body was a kind of clothing in and of itself. However, after the sin, man’s primary identity shifted to being that of a body.(8) Once he viewed his body as being the primary aspect of who he was, he felt embarrassed when it was uncovered. Accordingly he needed clothing to cover himself.
With this insight into the relationship between body and soul, we can now gain a deeper understanding of the significance of tearing one’s clothing or cutting one’s body. Since Adam’s sin man lives his life primarily focusing on himself as a body.(9) Thus, when a person dies, one could mistakenly think that his whole being is gone forever. However, this is a serious mistake – he has only lost his body, but his soul remains extant. Accordingly, he is commanded to tear his clothing to remind him in his time of grief, that his loved one’s essence has not disappeared.(10) Only his body, which was the clothing for his soul, has been lost, however his soul is intact. This explains why it is forbidden to make a cut in one’s flesh. To do so indicates a belief that this person ceases to exist in all forms.(11)
The Torah’s directives about mourning teaches not only about the correct attitude to death but also to how one should approach his life as well. With regard to death, we learn that it is not the end of a person’s existence. We recognize that a person’s loved one has moved on to a higher plain of existence. Making cuts in one’s body symbolizes a belief that the deceased ceases to exist in any form. Accordingly, it is a totally inappropriate action.
With regard to life, these lessons remind a person that he should not lose sight of the fact that his soul is the primary source of his identity and his body is a temporary vessel whose job is to facilitate the well-being of the soul. Accordingly, whilst one must provide for the basic physical needs of the body, he should not do so as an end in itself, rather to strengthen himself to be in a healthy physical state to embark on his spiritual endeavors. This is very difficult, given the state of man after Adam’s sin, however, the more one strengthens his recognition of the primacy of the soul, the more he will be able to put this lesson into practice.
1. Re’eh, 14:1.
2. Vayikra, 19:28.
3. The Shulchan Aruch is one of the most important volumes on Jewish law. It was written by Rav Yosef Karo in the 15th century.
4. Yoreh Deah, 340:1.
5. See Torah Temima, Vayikra, 10:6, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch al HaTorah, Vayikra, 19:28, for insights into these various mitzvos that relate to this question. A different (although not contradictory) approach will be adopted here.
6. Bereishis, 2:25.
7. Bereishis, 3:7.
8. This is how we identify ourselves to this very day. Rav Motty Berger shlita points out that a person does not say “my body doesn’t feel well”, rather he says “I don’t feel well”, implying that his source of identity is his body – this demonstrates that we naturally focus on our bodies as being our essence.
9. Needless to say, that his avoda in life is to relate to his soul to as great a degree a possible, however it is impossible to negate the primacy of his body in this world.
10. It should be noted that there are other times when there is an obligation of kriah – such as when one sees the area of the churban Beis HaMikdash – the explanation above does not seem to explain the reason for kriah in such an instance.
11. See Rabbeinu Bechaye, Devarim, 14:1.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Some Eco-Torah on Re’eh
1) Kavod ladam (from Kabbalah and Ecology, pp.348-9) — Deut 12:16, 12:23–5
A Tiquney Zohar passage states that when people weaken the right side
of lovingkindness/Chesed, it is “as if they were weakening the orders
of Creation / sidrey v’rei’shi, and as if they diminished the likeness
that is the [divine] stature above”. (sec.70, 125b)
Chesed is associated with the principle of Life itself, and
Judgment/Din (G’vurah) with whatever undoes the capacity and potential
for life. We need to ask ourselves what actions weaken Chesed, love
and life, and what actions increase life, at every level of Creation.
At issue is not whether death is good, but whether people act in a way
that increases or strengthens death, so that death outstrips life.
Such actions could be said to “weaken the orders of Creation”, and the
default should be to “forbid” them.
We can apply this question, for example, to how we use water (itself a
symbol for Chesed). One inference could be that we have an obligation
not to remove water from the cycle of life. When we divert water to
our uses, is that water being returned to the ecosystems to nurture
life to at least the degree it would have without our intervention and
diversion? This idea could have practical policy implications. For
example, every well that gets hydrofracked permanently deletes
millions of gallons of water from the biosphere. Certainly, that is a
kind of deprivation, not just for ourselves and the world, but for the
“element” of water itself, contaminated and no longer available to
sustain life. Even if the water that gets used up is non-potable, it
is wrong from this perspective to remove water forever from the
biosphere, unless the reason for doing so is to further life in some
concrete, measurable, and permanent way.
We can also bring halakhah directly to bear on this question, in the
form of the mitsvah of kavod ladam, “giving honor to the blood”.
According to Leviticus 17:13 (see discussion, n.476 ), one must bury
the blood of a wild animal one has slaughtered. Blood is repeatedly
equated with and imagined as the element of life: “Only be strong
against eating the blood, for the blood is the nefesh (life/soul) . .
. on the earth you will pour it out, like water . . . in order that it
will go well for you and for your children.” (Deut 12:23–5, see also
Deut 12:16, 15:23) Kavod ladam means that one is also required to
perform this mitsvah in a manner that shows honor – specifically, to
effect burial with one’s hand rather than one’s foot. (TB Chulin 87a,
Traditionally, this principle is applied to the honor due every
mitsvah, but its source in the commandment of burying the blood speaks
to the profound respect due to everything associated with life. This
perspective is also reflected in interpretations of kavod ladam like
the following by Avraham ben Aharon Yosef Tcharek (c.1870–1940,
Poland, Palestine), who wrote that because “the life/nefesh of all
flesh is its blood with its soul” (Lev 17:14), one has to cover it “as
for a person, where one needs to bury him” (Divrey Avraham, 21a).
From this perspective, kavod ladam implies a command to respect the
processes and products of life. “Weakening the orders of Creation” is
an effect of actions that violate kavod ladam, while properly
respecting that which carries the chiyut or lifeforce is a
halakhically mandated expression of bio- or ecocentrism.
In another example, we can apply these considerations to how we treat
organic waste. When we compost, we honor the lifeforce in our food,
enabling it to contribute again to life. If, as happens in our
industrial society, we mix toxic chemicals (from batteries, cleaners,
paint, etc.) into our landfills along with food scraps that could have
decayed back into earth, then we are poisoning that which was created
by Life, so that it cannot safely return to the soil as organic
compounds to sustain future life. This would constitute “sinning”
against our food. The problem in this light is not wasting food per se
, but undoing the cycle that turns food back into life-giving earth.
And this literally weakens the orders of Creation, just as it
dishonors the blood – that is, the force of life – that courses
through the elemental circuits of earth and water.
2) Kosher signs — from Kabbalah and Ecology, p.10
Long-held local customs are in fact almost always related to local
ecosystems. Consider the rules that determine a kosher land animal:
cloven hooves mean an animal can graze on rocky land unsuited for
farming; chewing cud means it can thrive eating food that is not
edible to people and that grows without cultivation. These rules are
precisely tuned to the agriculture of hilly Canaan. See Seidenberg,
“Kashroots: An Eco-History of the Kosher Laws”,
http://www.neohasid.org/torah/kashroots (Sep. 2009), §§2, 4–6, and Aloys
Hfttermann, The Ecological Message of the Torah: Knowledge, Concepts
and Laws which Made Survival in a land of Milk and Honey Possible
(Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida, 1999), 72. Hfttermann
describes ancient Hebrew society as “the first society which ever
lived on this globe to establish a sustained yield form of
3) Shmitat k’safim
In Deuteronomy Shmitah, the Sabbatical year of release, is described
as the cancellation of debts, while in Leviticus, it is described as
letting the land rest and returning to a kind of wild state in
relation to agriculture. The Shmitah of Leviticus applies to a mainly
agricultural society, while the Shmitah of Deuteronomy applies also to
a society that has developed in a mercantilist direction. Both stages
of society and economy are sustained by what the earth produces
through its natural cycles. But in our times, and for several
centuries before us, a major engine of economic productivity is what
can be extracted from the earth — ores, petroleum, resources that are
not renewed in the place from where they are extracted. The Torah
never describes what a Shmitah would look like for that kind of
economy because it never faced that kind of economy. What should
Shmitah for an extractive economy look like? This is one of many
questions we need to answer.
From Rabbi David Kasher
The Body Politic
From My Jewish Learning
You Shall Be Joyful
BY RABBI DANYA RUTTENBERG
My rabbi, Alan Lew, used to always complain about the challenges of living on an annual cycle with emotional dimensions. Tisha B’Av, in the dead heat of summer, is about grief. Purim, which happens right as the winter begins to recede, has a manic, feral edge to its celebration. Rabbi Lew used to kvetch, in his sardonic Brooklyn way, that he always felt happy on the days you’re supposed to be sad, and blue on the days you’re supposed to be ecstatic. There was no winning, really.
And this all gets even trickier when it’s connected to a mitzvah . That is, one of the key commandments for the holiday of Sukkot —the holiday marking, among other things, the fall harvest—is to be happy. V’samachta b’hagecha, the Torah instructs; you shall be joyful in your festival. How, many commentators have asked—how on Earth can Jewish law command a person to feel happy? And if you can’t get there? Then what? You’re a sinner for feeling heartbroken or blue that day? If we could all easily turn on the joy fountain on command, our culture would look very different — entire very profitable industries are built around selling happiness in some form or another. How does it work to command people, in a religious context, to feel a feeling?
As it turns out, that’s not what the Torah is doing. It says in Parashat Re’eh:
You shall observe the Festival of Sukkot seven days, after you have gathered in your grain and your wine; And you shall rejoice in your festival, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates. Seven days you should hold a festival for God …and you will have nothing but joy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
In context, “be joyful” is better translated as, “to rejoice.” That is to say, you should do a series of actions. You should come together with your family, your workers, and the various people in your community who are vulnerable and/or who do not have resources to “hold a festival,” presumably featuring the aforementioned grain and wine, on their own. So the commandment to be joyful is really a commandment to throw a party, to have a celebration, to bring people together, all the while making sure that even those most on the margins of society are included. Because our joy isn’t really joy if it’s available only for the privileged. That’s not holy rejoicing.
So this commandment isn’t to “feel joyful,” but rather to get out into community and celebrate. And, this text seems to suggest, that act of celebration will lead to feelings of joy — as a consequence of doing a good thing, “You will have nothing but joy.” This happens, sometimes. We all have evenings when we feel miserable and wretched, and are tempted to hide at home under the bed. But sometimes the doing leads to the feeling — sometimes when we haul ourselves out, put on some presentable clothing and go to the dinner or party or other social obligation, we discover that being out in community, being together with others in a loving space filled with good cheer does, in fact, raise our spirits. Sometimes getting out in the world and enjoying what the world has to offer can bring us to this feeling of exaltation.
For, at least in the Jewish tradition, joy is really described as something that has some interface with external reality. The rabbis of the Talmud (Pesachim 109a) ask, referencing the passage above, how should we bring joy to our family on the festivals? They come up with a few suggestions, including new clothes, and meat, and ultimately decide that the answer is wine. Because the Jewish tradition isn’t ascetic. The body and its pleasures are considered a holy good in their own right. Joy is about being around other people, about celebrating, about feasting, about aesthetic beauty (which I think is what the “new clothes” thing is about), about sights and sounds and tastes and smells and dancing and laughing and hugging and connecting. It’s about running barefoot in the sand, being chased by a couple of kids. It’s about building a pillow fort. It’s about being in the world, being part of the world, being with the world, and knowing that this deliciousness, all of it, is a blessing.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
By: Rabbi Edward Feinstein
As the Jew Turns
Before creating the human being, according to a Midrash, God consulted the angels of heaven. The angel of peace argued, “Don’t create him! He will bring war into Your world!” The angel of compassion countered, “He will do kindness, create him!” The angel of justice offered, “Create him! He will do what’s right.” The angel of truth argued, “He will fill the world with lies, don’t create him!” What did God do? God buried truth in the earth and created the Human Being.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth. We can’t tolerate truth — especially truth about ourselves, our finitude, failures and limitations. We bind ourselves in layers of evasion and self-deception to avoid truth. But once a year, Jewish tradition forces us to unearth the truth and face it. To cut through our culture of evasion, the tradition uses the most powerful psychological solvent available – it confronts us with our death.
Judaism is a passionately life-affirming culture. To protect a human life, any Jewish ritual is suspended. We say “L’Chaim — To Life!” over every glass of wine. But on the High Holidays, we actually rehearse death. On Yom Kippur, we deny the body — fasting (which for Jews is certainly a form of death), abstaining from sexual intimacy, removing our jewelry and finery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes. We don a kittel — a death shroud. We literally wear what we’ll be buried in one day. Why such morbid exercise? To cleanse us. In the face of mortality all the rationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and I am forced to see who and what I really am. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that on Yom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see life through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, what in my life matters? What is real? What is important? What is valuable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the obsessions and worries that waste my soul and sap my strength? This is the beginning of tshuva, the turning of the Jewish soul.
The Torah reading this week begins with a stunning admonition: Re’eh! See! See the truth! See the emergency of your condition. See what you have become. This is a Shabbat dedicated to vision. On this shabbat we will bless the new month of Ellul, the month of introspection and reflection leading up to the High Holidays.
Re’eh! See: We are one. We share a very small planet. We share a common destiny. But all year, I forget this truth and act as if my success can only be bought with your failure. This attitude, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” is called by the Talmud, “the morality of Sodom” – the path of oblivion, a form of spiritual death. Sin in the world is what cancer is to a body – one cell going its own way without regard to its place in an organic whole. Unchecked, it destroys the whole. Our lives and our fate cannot be separated.
Re’eh! See: Looking squarely into death, I come to realized what I’ve done. And so I confess aloud: I have sinned. I have squandered the opportunities of this past year. I have misused the gifts and blessings allotted me. I have failed to reach beyond the needs and desires of the self. I reached downward this year, and not upward.
The great Maimonides taught that we ought to regard ourselves as half-sinful and half-righteous. Our next decision determines our fate. There is a balance between the evil and the good within us. It is a paradox: To see the self as completely evil moves us toward moral despair; it closes the door on the possibility of moral growth. We would give up and retreat into our selfishness. To see the self as completely good is to overlook all the brokenness, and deny all the failures of character. So we maintain a dual vision: We can see the real self in all its flaws. And we can also see the ideal self to which we aspire. Most importantly, our fate is yet undetermined. Our character is yet an open question. We are not stuck. Maimonides vigorously resisted any notion of determinism. We are the accumulation of our choices, he taught, and we therefore we stand utterly naked in our responsibility. The first question in the Torah was God’s inquiry of the hiding Adam: “Where are you?” And ever since, we have struggled to respond.
A small gloss on Maimoniides is offered by Rabbi Mark Borovitz, the great teacher of tshuvah: Imagine this year that you are 51% evil and 49% good. All we ask is a 2% improvement. Just 2% improvement. Can you find 2% more time to devote to family, to community, to the world? Could you afford to give 2% more to charity? Can you become 2% more considerate, kinder? Can you grow in wisdom, but 2% this year? That’s all the holiday asks.
“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist, “to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But once a year, confronting the truth of our limited days liberates us from the bondage of illusions and excuses, so that we can see the truth of our existence. Perhaps we can change, and begin this new year with renewed strength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. We’ll see.
THE CHILDREN OF BELIAL – Parshat Re’eh
It is one of the most disturbing commandments in the Torah: The Condemned City.
We are told in this week’s parsha that when it becomes clear that an entire city in the land of Israel has been overtaken by idolatry, they are to be wiped out completely:
Strike down the inhabitants of the town with the sword. Destroy it, and everything in it; put even the animals to the sword. Gather all its goods in the central square and burn the town and everything in it like a sacrifice to the Lord your God. It shall remain in everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt. (Deuteronomy 13:16-17)
הַכֵּה תַכֶּה, אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא לְפִי-חָרֶב: הַחֲרֵם אֹתָהּ וְאֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר בָּה וְאֶת בְּהֶמְתָּהּ, לְפִי חָרֶב. וְאֶת-כָּל-שְׁלָלָהּ, תִּקְבֹּץ אֶל תּוֹך רְחֹבָהּ, וְשָׂרַפְתָּ בָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָה כָּלִיל, לַה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָיְתָה תֵּל עוֹלָם לֹא תִבָּנֶה עוֹד
The savagery of this punishment is unparalleled in the Bible. An entire city, burned to the ground. Men, women and children – and even animals! – slaughtered without mercy. It’s enough to make you want to just tear this page out of the Torah.
And rabbinic tradition nearly does just that. First, they establish all kinds of prerequisites for carrying out this punishment, making it highly unlikely that it could ever occur. To be fair, they are playing off the words of the Torah itself, which prefaced the above passage with an insistence that,
You shall inquire, and investigate, and interrogate thoroughly. (v. 15)
וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְחָקַרְתָּ וְשָׁאַלְתָּ, הֵיטֵב
The tripled verbiage here seems to suggest extreme caution. But then the rabbis take those hesitations a step further, declaring boldly that:
The Condemned City never happened and never will happen. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a)
עיר הנדחת לא היתה ולא עתידה להיות
This is one of only three cases that receives this unusual treatment: it is written out of existence, relegated to the realm of the purely theoretical. And perhaps that is for the best.
But before we let the Condemned City fade from our memory entirely, there is one strange detail that bears a bit of exploration, and perhaps will help us understand what was so wrong there to begin with. For the inhabitants of this city are not simply described as idolaters. They seem to have a very particular form of worship:
If you hear it said, that in one of the cities that the Lord your God is giving you to dwell in, that the people have become Children of Belial, and have subverted the residents of the city, saying, “Come, let us worship other gods…” (vv. 13-14)
כִּי-תִשְׁמַע בְּאַחַת עָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לָשֶׁבֶת שָׁם–לֵאמֹר. יָצְאוּ אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי-בְלִיַּעַל, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ, וַיַּדִּיחוּ אֶת-יֹשְׁבֵי עִירָם, לֵאמֹר: נֵלְכָה, וְנַעַבְדָה אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים…
Hold on there. “Children of Belial”?! Who or what is this Belial? Is it the name of a god? It certainly sounds like it. Or perhaps it refers to a particular form of strange worship – some kind of necromancy or black magic. What legend lies behind this mysterious name? What strange tales of the occult are we about to uncover?
Ah, but Jewish commentary gives us nothing so dramatic. Rashi tells us that Belial is not a name at all, but a compound word: ‘bli – ol’, meaning, ‘without – yoke.’ In other words, these people are unrestrained by obligation. They do what they want. In fact, most translations do not even use the word, ‘belial.’ They simply say, “lawless people,” or just “scoundrels.” But it this usage seems a bit odd. Why have a separate, compound word for this description which could easily have been made with the two short words we already know, and why describe these people as “The Children of…” lawlessness?
Rabbeinu Bachya gives an even weaker version of the same kind of interpretation. He says it may mean, ‘b’lo – al’, meaning ‘no – going up.’ These folks will never rise up towards God. Still others suggest, ‘bli – ya’al,’ or, ‘without – worth.’
Is this getting tiring? One gets the impression that they are trying a bit too hard, and that no one really knows what this word really refers to. But why not just go with what it looks like – a name? Only the Ibn Ezra ventures this suggestion, but even he seems rather uncertain:
Belial – A name. Though there are those who say it is a compound word.
בליעל – שם, ויש אומרים שהיא מלה מורכבת
That’s as strong a suggestion as we get that belial might refer to someone specific. But if so, who would it be?
If we leave the classical Jewish canon, however, we start getting some scintillating suggestions. Belial is mentioned in several of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in language like this:
You made Belial for the pit, angel of enmity; in darkness is his domain, his counsel is to bring about wickedness and guilt. All the spirits of his lot are angels of destruction, they walk in the laws of darkness; towards it goes their only desire. (The War Scroll)
Here Belial is an angel, who has been created by God to rule over darkness, and who seems to command a host of other angels. Then, in early Christian writings, Belial is given even more power. Here a description of him from book called the Ascension of Isaiah (a sort of of long-form Christian midrash on the prophecies of Isaiah):
And Manasseh turned aside his heart to serve Belia[l]; for the angel of lawlessness, who is the ruler of this world, is Belia[l], whose name is Matanbuchus. (2:4)
Now Belial is ruler of this whole world. And now he is collecting other names: Matanbuchus. By the time we get to the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, St. Jerome will add one more:
And bringing two men, sons of the devil (belial: diaboli), they made them sit against him: and they, like men of the devil, bore witness against him before the people. (I Kings 21:13)
The Devil himself! That, according to Christian tradition, is who has been haunting this condemned city. That is who these heretics worshipped. And that is who must be purged through death and fire.
Now why did Jewish tradition never go this way? Of course, the obvious answer is that we simply don’t have the same concept of “The Devil.” But we do have plenty of angels and demons floating around in midrashic literature. This blog has toured that kind of mythology several times. But here, in the story of the Condemned City – where the explicit crime is idolatry and we might expect a particular emphasis on strange forms of worship – nearly all the commentators avoid any trace of supernaturalism, and stick to a strictly moral interpretation of belial. It is lawlessness; godlessness; worthlessness – but it is not sorcery or witchcraft. Why is it so clear in Jewish tradition that following belial is an ethical violation, rather than a theological heresy?
I believe the answer to that question is actually quite close at hand. For while there are twenty-seven occurrences of the word belial in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, the only other mention it receives in the Torah itself is right here in our parsha, two chapters later. But this time it appears in a totally different context. It is the source text for the commandment to give tzedakah, charity, to the poor. And we are famously told to:
Open your hand to him and lend to him whatever he needs. (Deuteronomy 15:8)
פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.
But there is a potential problem. Jewish law mandates that all loans are forgiven every seven years. The Torah anticipates that people will be less likely to loan to the poor towards the end of this cycle, knowing they may not be repaid. To combat this tendency, in the next verse, this stern warning is issued:
Beware, lest you have a thought of belial in your heart, and say, “The seventh year of remission is approaching,” so that you are wicked to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. (15:9)
הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן-יִהְיֶה דָבָר עִם לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר, קָרְבָה שְׁנַת הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ
Here is belial again. But it is no foreign god. It is no cultish worship. He is not haunting you from out there somewhere.
Belial is in your heart. It is your selfishness. Your greed. Your lust for wealth, and the cruelty you will show to the most needy. You will defy the Torah, and you will defy God in order to keep what you have all to yourself. Belial is no angel up in the heavens, or down in hell. Belial is as human and terrestrial a thing as could be.
But, of course, it goes both ways. These two reference points inform one another. If the idolatrous children of belial in the condemned city are to be understood as ethically corrupt, then the thought of belial in the heart of the one who refuses to give must be, on some level, an idolatrous thought.
The rabbis of the Talmud, never missing a beat, make exactly that connection:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korkhah says: Whoever turns away his eyes from one who asks for charity is considered as if he were worshipping idols. For it is written In one place, “Beware, lest you have a thought of belial in your heart,” and in another place, “the people have become children of belial.” Just as in that case the sin is idolatry, so in this case the sin is idolatry. (Bava Batra 10a)
רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר כל המעלים עיניו מן הצדקה כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים כתיב הכא (דברים טו, ט) השמר לך פן יהיה דבר עם לבבך בליעל וכתיב התם (דברים יג, יד) יצאו אנשים בני בליעל מה להלן עבודת כוכבים אף כאן עבודת כוכבים
You, who hoarded your money – you worshipped a god of greed. You, who let the poor go hungry – you let a devil into your heart. You, who turned your eyes away from your brother’s outstretched hand – you are the true heretic.
And we will burn your city down.
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