You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Re’eh.
Can We Mourn Too Much?
BY KATJA VEHLOW, STUDENT, THE RABBINICAL SCHOOL OF JTS
When someone dies, this week’s parashah tells us, we should not ritually cut ourselves or our hair. In other words: we should not mourn excessively.
You are God’s children. Do not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, God has chosen you to be God’s treasured people. (Deut 14:1–2)
This prohibition, here extended from the priests to include all male Israelites, refers to a ritualized type of self-harm that is different from the hurt that some people afflict on themselves as a way to release painful emotions. To this day, self-laceration remains an expression of mourning in some cultures. In a few weeks, when Shiite Muslims celebrate Ashura and the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Karbala, some will flog themselves until blood flows, even as others reject these practices as extreme.
But why does the Torah tell us not to mourn too much? What is wrong with feeling our losses intensely? We read here that it is because we are “God’s children . . . chosen to be God’s treasured possession.” Excessive mourning is rejected because it is not seen as behavior fit for a holy people. One view is that the prohibition stems from gashing being associated with idol worship, as in the case of the Baal prophets who confronted Elijah (1 Kings 18:26–28).
The rabbis of the Talmud offer another interpretation. “Weep not for the dead, do not lament for them,” we read in Jeremiah 22:10. The Talmud explains that the second half of this verse refers to going beyond the traditionally prescribed periods of mourning, while the opening sentence alludes to extreme mourning (BTMoed Katan 27b). This interpretation follows a harrowing story about Rav Huna and a bereaved mother who refuses to be consoled. “One who grieves excessively will in the end weep for another person,” the Talmud warns the reader. But the mother does not listen to Rav Huna’s admonition to stop mourning. She continues to cry and eventually loses her remaining sons, and her own life. This kind of mourning, the Talmud implies, is a criticism, an indictment of the Divine. Bereavement, too, comes from God, and extreme mourning is seen as a refusal to accept God’s will.
The example of the twelfth-century polymath Moses Maimonides reveals the tension between interpreting mourning and living it. On the one hand, Maimonides saw mourning as a pedagogical tool. When we encounter death, he writes, we are called to “prepare ourselves and repent and awake from sleep” to face our lives, and our mortality (Hilkhot Avel 13:12). But in an intimate letter, he also describes how he spent an entire year bedridden and in great despair when his beloved brother David was lost at sea, a loss he called the greatest misfortune of his life. Maimonides was well familiar with the long tentacles of grief: the pain of this experience, he writes in the same letter, was reawakened when he as much as glanced at his brother’s handwriting.
Limiting deep mourning is difficult but, our parashah insists, necessary to regulate the pain of existential loss. Plunged into the alien world of the bereaved, Jews have access to finely tuned practices reaching from Aninut (usually the time between death and burial) to shivah (the seven days of mourning), and distinct periods of mourning, a year for parents and sheloshim (thirty days) for others. Experiencing a death can shatter our sense of self, and mourning customs offer orientation: Aninut exempts the bereaved from the everyday demands of spiritual life. You are now, Aninut says, free to mourn as deeply as you wish. Shivah, and to a lesser extent sheloshim and the year of mourning, are periods of declining intensity that ritualize ways in which we can express emotions, and gently guide the mourner back into life after death.
The prohibition against excessive mourning grew out of the lived experience that loss, and mourning loss, is an existential challenge. What does this prohibition mean in the face of a pandemic that robbed us of so much, including the comfort of ritualized mourning? Many funerals were solitary affairs, with loved ones following along on Zoom or, if they were lucky, from their cars. When my father died in Germany last year, ten days passed between his death and his funeral, and I had to re-evaluate what Aninut meant for me (we were fortunate, others had to wait three weeks). How many people sat shivah at home, comforted virtually by loving friends and family, and yet alone. Some of the changes brought by the pandemic will surely stay: virtual shivah visits have opened up the mitzvah of nihum avelim (comforting the mourner), gathering mourners and those who love them, wherever they may live. Virtual minyanim are bringing welcome accessibility to mourners who for a myriad of reasons—physical ability, dearth of community, convenience—might not have been able to say kaddish otherwise. For others, the disappearance of what we now call “in-person services” and the solace that can come from saying kaddish in shared space has been devastating.
As we (hopefully) emerge from this current pandemic, I am not sure that I am ready to heed the advice to limit mourning quite yet. I do not mean that we should get mourning haircuts or scar our bodies. But before we can celebrate the lessons learned during the pandemic, it may be good to acknowledge the hard parts: people we lost, months spent indoors, time not spent with friends and families, the times when we missed out on watching babies morph into toddlers or sitting with the elderly or the ill.
With Elul approaching, and the High Holidays not far behind, we are invited to tune into the rhythm of the Jewish year. We close out one year and turn to the next. We complete one cycle of the Torah and open it again to begin afresh, with our grief, our mourning, and all the hopes that make up our human experience. We are also called to reach out to those who lost someone over the last year. For although no gashes or shorn hair remind us of their losses, they may still be in pain.
From Rishe Groner
…This week’s Torah portion of “Re’eh” – literally, the word means “See”; is another chapter in Moshe’s grand speech to the Israelites, giving every last bit of instruction, advice, ethics and laws that he can before letting the kids grow up and leave home – or in this case, enter the Land of Israel while Moshe transitions on to the next world from the desert dunes.
And along with the laws – of which this parsha includes plenty of instructions for life, from the foods to eat and the ways to do agriculture and social justice and celebrate holidays – there is an underlying instruction here, one that goes beyond the specifics of how to build an agricultural God-driven society.
And that is being in the right place.
The place that God has chosen.
The opening verse, “See, I have placed before you the blessing and the curse”, is another one of the classic Moshe-esque ways of explaining that living in alignment with the Divine is a choice. If we work with the ways that are being instructed – of honoring the land; honoring the poor; honoring our society and honoring God – then the blessing is a natural consequence. And vice versa.
It’s walking in the way of God and not turning from it. A principle I’ve heard described in Native American cultures as “the beauty way”. This isn’t simply about using your mind to make rational decisions that you believe are right for you; or tuning into your heart to follow every whim and fancy. It’s not only about trusting your gut, though that’s a big part of it. It’s being in full alignment:
the head that studies and understands and keeps learning
the heart that feels into the experience and knows where it is being led
and the gut that fuses the two to take in all the information and come up with the instinctual decision.
The work of today’s world, I often wonder, is synthesizing not only those three (as I’ve said previously, making the acronym MeLeCh – Moach, Lev, Kaved – Mind, Heart, Liver/Kidneys) but adding in the fourth – Hara; womb (both Hebrew and Sanskrit share this root); to mean our creative, procreative, generative space of womb energy, for people of all genders.
We are all different, and use different combinations of the above to make our decisions.
But the act of studying Torah, of exploring sacred text, is to encourage the practice of learning, which reminds us that we’re always on this journey.
The act of prayer and meditation, cultivating the heart, is to practice the experience of listening to the heart.
And the act of embodied practice helps us bring it all the way down, into our guts and wombs and physical lower chakras….
From The Hebrew College
Blessing, Curse, and the Freedom to Choose
By Rabbi Shira Shazeer
Parshat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
The following was originally posted on August 7, 2018. Rereading this Dvar Torah, three years later, it strikes me how innumerable individual choices still make the difference between whether our lives as a community are like heaven or hell on earth, just as surely as they did when I shared this story last, as they did when I heard the story years before, and as they did when the Torah was given. At the same time, the image of so many people sitting at banquet tables, sharing conversation and food hand to mouth, fills me with both dread and longing in a way I could never have imagined three years ago. Today, as much as ever, we find ourselves facing a future that holds the potential for both blessing and curse. And it may be easier than ever to picture how well-meaning people can drift toward the curse. May we remember, this week, how our many daily small choices, to safeguard and nurture one another or to do what is expedient for ourselves, add up to blessing or curse for all of society. And may we choose life.
I may have been at summer camp the first time I heard the story, attributed to the itinerant Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, of the difference between heaven and hell.
Reb Haim, the story goes, had the opportunity to visit the world to come, and was brought first to see hell. There, he observed banquet tables laden with food, surrounded by people clearly suffering from hunger. On closer inspection he could see that the people held spoons in their hands, but their elbows were splinted open, so they could not reach their mouths. Next, Reb Haim was taken to heaven. Here, too, were banquet tables laden with food, surrounded by people. But these people were satisfied, happily engaged in conversation. He saw that these people, too, had their arms splinted, but as he watched, one person filled a spoon and brought it to the mouth of the person across the table. That person thanked the first and returned the favor. Seeing this, Reb Haim went back to hell, to share the secret of how to eat and end the suffering. The inhabitants of hell, however, replied that they would rather starve than feed people whom they held in such great contempt. I remember feeling amazed that the difference between suffering and satisfaction lay in attitude and cooperation.
If you wonder what heaven and hell are doing in a Jewish story, when Judaism is supposed to be about the here and now, don’t worry. There are a number of Jewish conceptions of an afterlife, including a hell-like realm called gehenom, where souls go to deal with their outstanding sins before entering the ultimate world-to-come. But in reality, I think this story is much more about the here and now.
This week’s parsha, Parshat Re’eh, is part of Moses’ last-minute instructions to the Israelites as they are about to enter the land of Israel. It starts with a short but rich verse: “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” Moses goes on to promise blessing if the people listen to God’s laws, and curse if they ignore them. We might expect what follows to be a description of what the blessings and curses will entail. Instead, we find enumerated some of the laws that will determine the difference between blessing and curse. Most of these laws revolve around serving God, eschewing idolatry, the people’s relationship with food, and concern for all members of the community.
The Israelites, on the precipice of the Promised Land, need to know how to live there, how to establish their new society. Living in this new land will be so unlike their previous lives, as slaves subject to their taskmasters and as a tight-knit clan of wanderers directly dependent on God and Moses, that they will not be able to rely on their own experience. Now they must learn to live in what seems like a whole other world. The land of Israel promises to be a place of prosperity and freedom, where the Israelites will have free will in a sense they have not had in generations. They will have the ability to feel independent of one another, and even of God, and to connect to or disconnect from community. As in the story of heaven and hell, the plentitude of this new world will come with unique challenges, and the rest of the parsha lays out some ways to make sure that the bounty and the freedom are a blessing rather than a curse. The key lies in maintaining a sense of communal responsibility.
The Israelites are instructed that on entering the land, they are to remove all traces of idolatry, and not learn from the ways of the idol worshippers. God will establish a central location for worshiping God, a single place to offer sacrifices. They are to gather there, to include everyone in their community, to rejoice together. They are now, for the first time, permitted to eat meat outside of the sacrificial system. This access to meat even when they are too far to frequent the Holy Temple, ensures that when they do sacrifice, it connects them not only to their personal understanding of God, but to the whole community. They are to sanctify the meat they eat, by observing to the laws of Kashrut, and to sanctify their produce by bringing some portion of it to the Temple at set times to celebrate as a community, and by sharing with those who have less.
That first verse, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse,” contains several words that have fascinated the rabbinic imagination for generations. First “behold” is stated in the singular, while “before you” is stated in plural form. Is Moses speaking to one person, or to all? Also, the word “today” seems superfluous. Finally, the word “set” is more literally translated “give,” as in a gift. There are numerous resolutions to these mysterious words, but I’d like to bring to the foreground the following. Those of us who are privileged to live a life of prosperity and freedom can use our free will to build a society that is a heaven or a hell on earth. (In reality, it may sometimes be both simultaneously). Moses addresses us in the plural because the blessing or the curse affects us as a whole society and depends on the actions of society as a whole. He addresses us in the singular because each of us is responsible for our individual free choices, and each of our choices influences society at large. He phrases it as a gift, because the freedom to choose what is right is invaluable. He says “today,” because every day, even today, regardless of what we chose yesterday, it lies within our reach to choose the blessing, to walk in God’s ways, to reject the false idols that tempt us, and to build a just society, a society that cares for each other. The legacy of our Torah, and the privilege of our freedom demand nothing less
The World As It Is and As It Should Be, by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
Check this out.
Look at what’s in front of you.
Not the computer screen, or the to-do list.
But the faces, the people, the community that makes up the identity that we are.
Many of our Torah portions are named with a verb: Lech Lecha, “Go”, is one of them. That’s one of the ways that we start off our Torah-reading journey, with the story of our ancestors Avram and Sarai who sojourned across the ancient deserts, seeking a way to live with the Divine and set up that prototype for generations. And now, coming close to the end of the cycle, we are told to Re’eh: To See.
“Look: I’m placing before you the Blessing and the Curse.”
That’s how we open. With a choice. An option to live a certain way, or not. The repercussions are ours to deal with, depending on what we select on our Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.
It’s our life. So we can choose.
This week’s Parsha is a Devarim-esque list of life skills. We are asked to choose: Do we want to live a life of goodness, of blessing, of openness and expansion that is possible when we align ourselves with the Divine? Or are we looking for trouble by running after distractions, things that feel good for a short time but don’t serve our higher purpose.
Re’eh doesn’t just give us a laundry list of how to behave in society by being conscious of people around who might influence us; learning to let go of the social influencers who have sent us astray; and doing the inner work to fully uproot the negative habits within us and our society.
This parsha also gives us a way to embody it.
It seems almost counter-intuitive to have such a harsh introduction to the portion, full of these guides for life, and then a list of simple rules: What to eat (laws of kashrus); when to eat (our holidays and festivals), and when and how to cultivate (laws of shemittah). There are laws about being compassionate to people who are going through tough times in society, and laws about how you treat those for whom you are responsible.
The Torah is teaching us in Parshat Re’eh not that this is a simple matter of Divine reward and punishment:
But this is how society works.
When we hit the Devarim arena, I often think of the laws of Permaculture.
“Permaculture is a set of design principles centered on whole systems thinking, simulating, or directly utilizing the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems”
Permaculture is about studying not only the wildlife, farming and gardening of a growing community but also the interwoven aspects of human life. It asks people to look at the different ways living beings affect one another, and to create the optimal environment so that all living beings thrive. That might mean a specific way of farming two types of plants in adjacent areas so they can benefit from the predators they attract; or setting things up to make sure that people working on the farm or garden can collaborate peacefully. But permaculture reminds us that there is always a repercussion for our actions.
When the Torah tells us in this Parsha how to eat; how to farm; and how to conduct our societies, we’re being given a set of permaculture principles. When we are told to choose between the blessing and the curse, we are given the tools to obtain the blessing:
By eating with intention.
The laws of Kashrut are elucidated in this parsha. It’s not about the split hooves or the chewing cud or the type of birds. It’s about learning to be conscious of everything we put in our mouths, every bite that we chew, as an act of consecration to the Divine, as once we take one life in exchange for ours, we’ve got to make it worth it. Meat is slaughtered primarily for sacrifice, so when it’s not about giving God the best barbecue ever, it’s about making sure that you are turning your own home meal into an altar of offerings to the Divine. It’s about what you do with it.
By caring for people with less privilege
It’s painful to read of slavery, even with the Torah’s system of optimal care and concern. But it is important to notice how the Torah asks us to care for those in our debt; how to bail out our friends and neighbors who need it; and how to always be conscious of the stranger among us.
It’s a society that is built through an interwoven network of relationships, and we need to take care in how we engage with everybody, not just our friends and family.
By being conscious of our society, and who influences us
The Parsha discusses the bizarre scenarios of a specific person who decides to influence people towards a life away from Divine consciousness; or an entire town that goes astray. While this brings up ideas of social ostracizing and #cancelculture that feels like a rough option for us today; I think the Torah is reminding us how careful we need to be with the information we take in, and the people we hear it from. Being aware of who is around us and what they subscribe to helps us to be conscious of how we communicate and co-create with our neighbors and communities.
By celebrating festivals to honor the cycles and rhythms of the seasons
This Torah portion incorporates the festivals, ancient Israelite celebrations often based around the blossomings of spring; the first buds of harvest; and the final gathering of harvest. These moments of jaw-dropping Divine awe-inspiration are moments to celebrate with ritual, with community, and with the gratitude and understanding that we are in the hands of God.
And finally, by acknowledging our total dependence on God for our agricultural success
The laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year of giving a moment of “rest” to the land, remind us that at the end of the day, we can only do so much. We can only do the best we can do. The rains, the quality of the earth, the wind, the sun and the minerals of the soil are all in the hands of Spirit. And yet, by giving up part of ourselves, our need to control and micromanage, God takes care of the rest. That’s why we let the land lie for a year – a permaculture principle of the ancient days.
From Rabbi Alan Lew
From his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared
“Look! I put before you this day a blessing and a curse.” So begins Parshat Re’eh, the weekly Torah portion we read as the month of Elul begins. Look. Pay attention to. your life. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter. Parshat Re’eh begins with a concretization of this spiritual reality, a ritual that renders this invisible reality visible.
As the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, they staged a dramatic pageant. They wrote the word of God on twelve great stones and placed the stones on the peak of Mount Gerizim. Half of the nation of Israel stood on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and the other half stood on the slopes of Mount Eval, across the valley. Standing in the valley between the two mountains, the priestly tribe, the Levites, faced Mount Gerizim and intoned a series of blessings, and all the people said Amen. Then the Levites faced the slopes of Mount Eval and intoned a series of cursed, and all the people said Amen again.
The message of this ritual as clear. The will of God is present every moment. Every moment contains the capacity for good and evil, life and death, a blessing and a curse, and everything depends on our choice. “Look… I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, so that you may live” Moses repeats in the ringing peroration to the Book of Deuteronomy.
We learn a number of things from this. We learn that this business of choosing good over evil, life over death, is precisely a matter of life and death. Our lives quite literally depend on it. And we learn that it is a matter of consciousness also. We have come to see our life very clearly, clearly enough so that we can discern the will of God in it, so that we can tell the difference between the blessing and the curses, so that these things are arrayed before us as clearly as mountains, as we intone their names from the valley in between— that sliver of eternity on which we stand and that we call the present moment…
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Week 3; Ascent
And when you feel
You will look down
See yourself walking on jewels
All your children will be
Students of God
Great will be the peace
Of your children
When you are thirsty go drink
Eat what is good let your soul
Enjoy its abundance
No one will get in your way
And when you need it
Your soul will revive
From Rabbi David Kasher
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.
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.
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.
THE BODY POLITIC – Parshat Re’eh
What do parents want most for their children?
A rather startling answer can be inferred from a verse in this week’s parsha. Chapter fourteen of Deuteronomy opens with one of the most intimate metaphors for our relationship with God – that of parent and child – and then goes on to make a very particular request:
You are all children to the Lord your God – so do not make gashes in your flesh… (Deut. 14:1)
בָּנִים אַתֶּם, לַה אֱלֹקיכֶם – לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ
“Gashes in your flesh.” Goodness, that’s rather extreme! Surely no parent would ever want their child to self-mutilate, but is that really the first concern that comes to mind when one reflects on the well-being of one’s offspring? In fact, we might wonder if such a command were necessary at all! Is skin-carving really so common that it warrants special mention?
Yet the commentary of the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France) refers to us an incident later in the Bible when we see this very practice carried out en masse. It is during the stand-off between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al, when Elijah challenges them to summon their god (in what is one of the rare moments of sarcasm in Tanach):
Elijah mocked them, saying, “Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But he may be in conversation, or he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.” (I Kings 18:27)
וַיְהַתֵּל בָּהֶם אֵלִיָּהוּ, וַיֹּאמֶר קִרְאוּ בְקוֹל-גָּדוֹל כִּי-אֱלֹהִים הוּא–כִּי שִׂיחַ וְכִי-שִׂיג לוֹ, וְכִי-דֶרֶךְ לוֹ; אוּלַי יָשֵׁן הוּא, וְיִקָץ
“Shout louder,” Elijah says. So they do, in hopes of rousing the slumbering deity. But then they take their frenzy a step further:
So they shouted louder, and gashed themselves with knives and spears, according to their practice, until the blood streamed over them. (ibid., v. 28)
וַיִּקְרְאוּ, בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל, וַיִּתְגֹּדְדוּ כְּמִשְׁפָּטָם, בַּחֲרָבוֹת וּבָרְמָחִים–עַד-שְׁפָךְ-דָּם, עֲלֵיהֶם
This gruesome scene suggests that self-inflicted wounding was an established practice in some religious traditions. The faithful would mortify their flesh as a way of demonstrating the extent of their devotion and currying the favor of their god.
Put in this context, we might understand our commandment above as a reformation of the cultural norms for ceremonial worship. This God, the Torah clarifies, does not desire your self-imposed affliction. On the contrary, this God explicitly forbids you from harming your own body.
And why this change in standard forms of religious practice? Here is where the metaphor becomes relevant. For this is not some cruel, aloof deity who takes pleasure in your extreme submission. Rather, this God regards you as if you were beloved children. And what kind of parents would want their children to hurt themselves in order show their affection? No, a good parent only wants the best for their child. And just as a human parent would be horrified to learn that their child was engaged in this kind of cutting, so the Divine Parent refuses gashing of the flesh as a form of worship.
But if we have made some sense of the plain meaning of our verse, we now have to contend with the classic Talmudic interpretation of this passage. For the rabbis play on the sound of Hebrew word for “gashing” (titgodedu – תתגדדו) and offer a very different understanding of the commandment:
Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan, “I read these words, lo titgodedu (do not make gashes in your flesh) to mean: Do not make yourselves into opposing factions (agudot, agudot). (Yevamot 13b)
אמר ליה ר“ל לר’ יוחנן איקרי כאן (דברים יד, א) לא תתגודדו לא תעשו אגודות אגודות
Apparently, Reish Lakish did not think the verse could be limited to such a specific prohibition. Instead, he heard an echo in the language of the verb that hinted at a broader social mandate: do not split yourselves into warring groups. How might this danger of “opposing factions” play out? The Talmud considers several possibilities.
Perhaps, for example, there are two courts in one city, each of which rules in according to a different legal philosophy. One can imagine the confusion that would result, as two entirely different visions of the law were articulated in the same society. Litigants would begin to choose one court over another based on personal interest, and no one would know what the law really was.
Or worse, the Talmud continues: imagine the city has only one court, but it is internally divided, with some judges ruling according to one legal philosophy and some according to another. Then the entire process of adjudication becomes a matter not of interpreting the law, but of judges battling for political power.
One has only to reflect on the courts of today to realize how real this danger is. Indeed, the general phenomenon of social factionalism – the splitting of one large society into several opposing groups, each with a different vision of law and morality, all fighting viciously against one another for ascendancy – is all too familiar in our contemporary landscape. The Torah is warning, then, against the kind of self-destructive political infighting that can cause the fabric of a nation to unravel completely.
But now we must ask again, what does this understanding of the verse have to do with the opening phrase, “You are all children to the Lord your God”? The commentary of the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, 1816-1893, Lithuania), addresses this question:
Because you are all children of God, so it is not right that you all are so divided… for the nature of siblings is to walk together on the same path.
כיון שאתם בנים לה׳ ע״כ אין ראוי שיתראה שנפרדים אתם … דטבע הבנים להיות הולכים בדרך אחד
The answer is clear enough: If God is like a parent to us, then the last thing God wants is for us to be at each other’s throats. What do parents want more than for their children to love each other? The power of the parent-child metaphor is that it not only describes the nature of our relationship to God, but also implies the kind of relationship we ought to have with one another. If we are all children of God, then we are also siblings. And so we are called upon to feel love and respect not only for our common parent, but also – and perhaps even more importantly – for all of our brothers and sisters.
These two interpretations of the verse, then – the religious injunction against ritual mutilation and the political warning against factionalism – are each important messages on their own. But as a matter of parshanut, one glaring question remains. If the verse really contained a lesson in social and political ethics, why would it be embedded in the language of “gashing the flesh”? Why not simply give us a separate verse, elsewhere, that warned us not to make ourselves into opposing factions? It is true that one verse can contain multiple layers of meaning, but we expect them all to be at least loosely related. Here the literal message and the figurative message seem to have nothing to do with one another.
Leave it to the great master of symbolic philosophy, the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Loew, 1512-1609) to discern a connection between our two streams of interpretation. He writes, in his commentary, the Gur Aryeh:
It is appropriate that these two things be taught together. For just as gashing tears at the body of a person – so that his flesh is no longer unified and whole – so it is when one city’s court is divided, half ruling like the House of Hillel and half like the House of Shammai, it is as if the body of a person is divided.
דודאי שייכי שפיר יחד, שכמו שהגדידה מחלק גוף האדם – עד שאין בשרו אחד ושוה, כך כשנחלק הבית דין שהוא בעיר אחת, חציים מורים כבית הלל, וחציים כבית שמאי, כאילו גופו של אדם מחולק
Factionalism is like gashing at the flesh, for entrenched political warfare hacks away at the social organism, gouges into the skin that holds our collective body together. As each caucus goes out to destroy its enemies, it makes a cut into the unity and wholeness of the nation. We become, every day, more and more like the Prophets of Ba’al, shouting ever louder, gashing ourselves with knives and spears, until blood is streaming over us.
And above us all, a horrified Parent looks down, and reminds us, “You are all children of the Lord your God.” You are all siblings, brothers and sisters. So put down your weapons and your disband your factions. My dear children, you are tearing each other apart.
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.
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 Jonathan Sacks
The Deep Power of Joy (Re’eh 5776)
On 14 October 1663 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys paid a visit to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the city of London. Jews had been exiled from England in 1290 but in 1656, following an intercession by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, Oliver Cromwell concluded that there was in fact no legal barrier to Jews living there. So for the first time since the thirteenth century Jews were able to worship openly.
The first synagogue, the one Pepys visited, was simply a private house belonging to a successful Portuguese Jewish merchant, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, that had been extended to house the congregation. Pepys had been in the synagogue once before, at the memorial service for Carvajal who died in 1659. That occasion had been sombre and decorous. What he saw on his second visit was something else altogether, a scene of celebration that left him scandalised. This is what he wrote in his diary:
… after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles (i.e. tallitot), and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press (i.e. the Aron) to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing … But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.
Poor Pepys. No one told him that the day he chose to come to the synagogue was Simchat Torah, nor had he ever seen in a house of worship anything like the exuberant joy of the day when we dance with the Torah scroll as if the world was a wedding and the book a bride, with the same abandon as King David when he brought the holy ark into Jerusalem.
Joy is not the first word that naturally comes to mind when we think of the severity of Judaism as a moral code or the tear-stained pages of Jewish history. As Jews we have degrees in misery, postgraduate qualifications in guilt, and gold-medal performances in wailing and lamentation. Someone once summed up the Jewish festivals in three sentences: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Yet in truth what shines through so many of the psalms is pure, radiant joy. And joy is one of the keywords of the book of Devarim. The root s-m-ch appears once each in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but twelve times in Devarim, seven of them in our parsha.
What Moses says again and again is that joy is what we should feel in the land of Israel, the land given to us by God, the place to which the whole of Jewish life since the days of Abraham and Sarah has been a journey. The vast universe with its myriad galaxies and stars is God’s work of art, but within it planet earth, and within that the land of Israel, and the sacred city of Jerusalem, is where He is closest, where His presence lingers in the air, where the sky is the blue of heaven and the stones are a golden throne. There, said Moses, in “the place the Lord your God will choose … to place His Name there for His dwelling” (Deut. 12:5), you will celebrate the love between a small and otherwise insignificant people and the God who, taking them as His own, lifted them to greatness.
It will be there, said Moses, that the entire tangled narrative of Jewish history would become lucid, where a whole people – “you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites from your towns, who have no hereditary portion with you” – will sing together, worship together and celebrate the festivals together, knowing that history is not about empire or conquest, nor society about hierarchy and power, that commoner and king, Israelite and priest are all equal in the sight of God, all voices in his holy choir, all dancers in the circle at whose centre is the radiance of the Divine. This is what the covenant is about: the transformation of the human condition through what Wordsworth called “the deep power of joy.”
Happiness (in Greek eudaemonia), Aristotle said, is the ultimate purpose of human existence. We desire many things, but usually as a means to something else. Only one thing is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else, namely happiness.
There is such a sentiment in Judaism. The biblical word for happiness, Ashrei, is the first word of the book of Psalms and a key word of our daily prayers. But far more often, Tanach speaks about simchah, joy – and they are different things. Happiness is something you can feel alone, but joy, in Tanach, is something you share with others. For the first year of marriage, rules Devarim (24:5) a husband must “stay at home and bring joy to the wife he has married.” Bringing first-fruits to the Temple, “You and the Levite and the stranger living among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household” (26:11). In one of the most extraordinary lines in the Torah, Moses says that curses will befall the nation not because they served idols or abandoned God but “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness out of the abundance of all things” (28:47). A failure to rejoice is the first sign of decadence and decay.
There are other differences. Happiness is about a lifetime but joy lives in the moment. Happiness tends to be a cool emotion, but joy makes you want to dance and sing. It’s hard to feel happy in the midst of uncertainty. But you can still feel joy. King David in the Psalms spoke of danger, fear, dejection, sometimes even despair, but his songs usually end in the major key:
For His anger lasts only a moment,
but His favour lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning …
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever. (Psalm 30:6-13)
In Judaism joy is the supreme religious emotion. Here we are, in a world filled with beauty. Every breath we breath is the spirit of God within us. Around us is the love that moves the sun and all the stars. We are here because someone wanted us to be. The soul that celebrates, sings.
And yes, life is full of grief and disappointments, problems and pains, but beneath it all is the wonder that we are here, in a universe filled with beauty, among people each of whom carries within them a trace of the face of God. Robert Louis Stevenson rightly said: “Find out where joy resides and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.”
In Judaism, faith is not a rival to science, an attempt to explain the universe. It’s a sense of wonder, born in a feeling of gratitude. Judaism is about taking life in both hands and making a blessing over it. It is as if God had said to us: I made all this for you. This is my gift. Enjoy it and help others to enjoy it also. Wherever you can, heal some of the pain that people inflict on one another, or the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Because pain, sadness, fear, anger, envy, resentment, these are things that cloud your vision and separate you from others and from Me.
Kierkegaard once wrote: “It takes moral courage to grieve. It takes religious courage to rejoice.” I believe that with all my heart. So I am moved by the way Jews, who know what it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still see joy as the supreme religious emotion. Every day we begin our morning prayers with a litany of thanks, that we are here, with a world to live in, family and friends to love and be loved by, about to start a day full of possibilities, in which, by acts of loving kindness, we allow God’s presence to flow through us into the lives of others. Joy helps heal some of the wounds of our injured, troubled world.
 William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.”
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a 30-34.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, 2179.
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 Lord Jonathan Sacks
Re’eh (5774) – Defining Reality
One of the gifts of great leaders, and one from which each of us can learn, is that they frame reality for the group. They define its situation. They specify its aims. They articulate its choices. They tell us where we are and where we are going in a way no satellite navigation system could. They show us the map and the destination, and help us see why we should choose this route not that. That is one of their most magisterial roles, and no one did it more powerfully than did Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.
Here is how he does it at the beginning of this week’s parsha:
See, I am setting before you today the blessing and the curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. (Deut. 11:26-28)
Here, in even more powerful words, is how he puts it later in the book:
See, I set before you today life and the good, death and the bad… This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life so you and your children after you may live. (Deut. 30:15, 19)
What Moses is doing here is defining reality for the next generation and for all generations. He is doing so as a preface to what is about to follow in the next many chapters, namely a systematic restatement of Jewish law covering all aspects of life for the new nation in its land.
Moses does not want the people to lose the big picture by being overwhelmed by the details. Jewish law with its 613 commands is detailed. It aims at the sanctification of all aspects of life, from daily ritual to the very structure of society and its institutions. Its aim is to shape a social world in which we turn even seemingly secular occasions into encounters with the Divine presence. Despite the details, says Moses, the choice I set before you is really quite simple.
We, he tells the next generation, are unique. We are a small nation. We have not the numbers, the wealth nor the sophisticated weaponry of the great empires. We are smaller even than many of our neighbouring nations. As of now we do not even have a land. But we are different, and that difference defines once-and-for-all who we are and why. God has chosen to make us His stake in history. He set us free from slavery and took us as His own covenantal partner.
This is not because of our merits. “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land” (Deut. 9:5). We are not more righteous than others, said Moses. It is because our ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – were the first people to heed the call of the one God and follow him, worshipping not nature but the Creator of nature, not power but justice and compassion, not hierarchy but a society of equal dignity that includes within its ambit of concern the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
Do not think, says Moses, that we can survive as a nation among nations, worshipping what they worship and living as they live. If we do, we will be subject to the universal law that has governed the fate of nations from the dawn of civilisation to today. Nations are born, they grow, they flourish, they become complacent, then corrupt, then divided, then defeated, then they die, to be remembered only in history books and museums. In the case of Israel, small and intensely vulnerable, that fate will happen sooner rather than later. That is what Moses calls “the curse.”
The alternative is simple – even though it is demanding and detailed. It means taking God as our sovereign, judge of our deeds, framer of our laws, author of our liberty, defender of our destiny, object of our worship and our love. If we predicate our existence on something – some One – vastly greater than ourselves then we will be lifted higher than we could reach by ourselves. But that needs total loyalty to God and His law. That is the only way we will avoid decay, decline and defeat.
There is nothing puritanical about this vision. Two of the key words of Deuteronomy are love and joy. The word “love” (the root a-h-v) appears twice in Exodus, twice in Leviticus, not all in Numbers, but 23 times in Deuteronomy. The word “joy” (root s-m-ch) appears only once in Genesis, once in Exodus, once in Leviticus, once in Numbers but twelve times in Deuteronomy. Moses does not hide the fact, though, that life under the covenant will be demanding. Neither love nor joy come on a social scale without codes of self-restraint and commitment to the common good.
Moses knows that people often think and act in short-term ways, preferring today’s pleasure to tomorrow’s happiness, personal advantage to the good of society as a whole. They do foolish things, individually and collectively. So throughout Devarim he insists time and again that the road to long-term flourishing – the ‘good,’ the ‘blessing,’ life itself – consists in making one simple choice: accept God as your sovereign, do His will, and blessings will follow. If not, sooner or later you will be conquered and dispersed and you will suffer more than you can imagine. Thus Moses defined reality for the Israelites of his time and all time.
What has this to do with leadership? The answer is that the meaning of events is never self-evident. It is always subject to interpretation. Sometimes, out of folly or fear or failure of imagination, leaders get it wrong. Neville Chamberlain defined the challenge of the rise to power of Nazi Germany as the search for “peace in our time.” It took a Churchill to realise that this was wrong, and that the real challenge was the defence of liberty against tyranny.
In Lincoln’s day there were any number of people for and against slavery but it took Lincoln to define the abolition of slavery as the necessary step to the preservation of the union. It was that larger vision that allowed him to say, in the Second Inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds …” He allowed neither abolition itself, nor the end of the Civil War, to be seen as a victory for one side over the other but instead defined it as a victory for the nation as a whole.
I explained in my book on religion and science, The Great Partnership, that there is a difference between the cause of something and its meaning. The search for causes is the task of explanation. The search for meaning is the work of interpretation. Science can explain but it cannot interpret. Were the ten plagues in Egypt a natural sequence of events, or Divine punishment, or both? There is no scientific experiment that could resolve this question. Was the division of the Red Sea a Divine intervention in history or a freak easterly wind exposing a submerged and ancient river bank? Was the Exodus an act of Divine liberation or a series of lucky coincidences that allowed a group of fugitive slaves to escape? When all the causal explanations have been given, the quality of miracle – an epoch-changing event in which we see the hand of God – remains. Culture is not nature. There are causes in nature, but only in culture are there meanings. Homo sapiens is uniquely the culture-creating, meaning-seeking animal, and this affects all we do.
Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, used to emphasise that our lives are determined not by what happens to us but by how we respond to what happens to us – and how we respond depends on how we interpret events. Is this disaster the end of my world or is it life calling on me to exercise heroic strength so that I can survive and help others to survive? The same circumstances may be interpreted differently by two people, leading one to despair, the other to heroic endurance. The facts may be the same but the meanings are diametrically different. How we interpret the world affects how we respond to the world, and it is our responses that shape our lives, individually and collectively.
That is why, in the famous words of Max De Pree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
Within every family, every community, and every organisation, there are trials, tests and tribulations. Do these lead to arguments, blame and recrimination? Or does the group see them providentially, as a route to some future good (a “descent that leads to an ascent” as the Lubavitcher Rebbe always used to say)? Does it work together to meet the challenge? Much, perhaps all, will depend on how the group defines its reality. This in turn will depend on the leadership or absence of leadership that it has had until now. Strong families and communities have a clear sense of what their ideals are, and they are not blown off-course by the winds of change.
No one did this more powerfully than Moses in the way he monumentally framed the choice: between good and bad, life and death, the blessing and the curse, following God on the one hand, or choosing the values of neighbouring civilisations on the other. That clarity is why the Hittites, Canaanites, Perizzites and Jebusites are no more, while the people of Israel still lives, despite an unparalleled history of circumstantial change.
Who are we? Where are we? What are we trying to achieve and what kind of people do we aspire to be? These are the questions leaders help the group ask and answer, and when a group does so together it is blessed with exceptional resilience and strength.
 Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art, New York, Doubleday, 1989.
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
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.
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.
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 Rabbi Gerson Winkler
A Teaching from Reb 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.
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.”
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
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
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 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.
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
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)
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