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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT RE’EH - BIRKAT HAHODESH
August 19, 2006 – 25 Av 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 12:29 – 14:29 (Etz Hayim, p. 1068; Hertz p. 804)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1085; Hertz p. 818)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

The parashah continues Moses’ series of talks to the people Israel shortly before his death, after they have wandered through the wilderness for 40 years. The emphasis changes from history to law, in this portion. Over the next several weeks, Moses will review many of the laws that the Israelites received from God, occasionally adding new ones.

This portion begins with the notion that the Israelites are given free choice. They can choose a life of blessing by obeying the commandments that God has given them, or they can choose a life of curses through disobedience. As they cross over into the Promised Land, they should be careful to obey all the laws that God has set before them.

The major theme of this portion is the centralization of worship in one holy spot that God will choose, a place for His name to dwell. All other so-called holy places are to be torn down. All offerings must be brought before God in that one central place. The requirement of a central place tended to unify the tribes and prevent divisions within the faith. (Eventually this place would be the Holy Temple in the city of Jerusalem.) Again the Israelites are warned against following the ways of the nations of the land.

Once again Moses summarizes the dietary laws. Only animals the have a split hoof and chew their cud can be eaten. Fish must have fins and scales, and there is a long list of forbidden birds, mostly birds of prey. The Israelites are given various other laws, including the requirement to tithe and to cancel all debts every seven years. The portion ends with a review of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, when all Jews had to appear at the centralized sanctuary.

Issue #1 - The Choices We Make

“Behold I place before you today the blessing and the curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26)

Discussion

  1. Judaism teaches that each of us has two inclinations that constantly struggle within us. There is the good inclination, yetzer hatov, and the evil inclination, yetzer hara. Sigmund Freud was certainly anti-religious, but perhaps we can give a Jewish twist to his terminology. Perhaps we can identify the yetzer hara or evil inclination with the id, the primitive appetites that must be controlled and sublimated. Perhaps we can identify the yetzer hatov or good inclination with the superego, the conscience that is imparted to us by our parents or society and that teaches us self-control, altruism, and delayed gratification.
  2. Freud also spoke of the ego, that part of us able to make decisions consciously. We human beings have the ability to choose. We also must take responsibility for those choices. Free will is God’s greatest gift to us. It is the part of us that makes us most godlike and is the essence of the teaching that we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
  3. There is a cultural tendency today not to take responsibility for the choices we make. We blame our genes, our upbringing, or our community. But as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” Today we have to update Shakespeare's words - the fault lies not in our genes but in ourselves. How do we teach our young people to take responsibility for the choices they make?

Issue #2 – Two Views of Poverty

“There shall be no needy among you, since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion” (Deuteronomy 15:4)

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Discussion

  1. What can be done when two Torah verses, just a few verses apart, totally contradict one another? Which is the truth? One verse teaches that there will no longer be poverty in the land. The other verse teaches that there will always be poor people in the land. How can both be true? Is there a way to approach this seeming contradiction?
  2. Let us look at one solution to this apparent contradiction. Perhaps the first verse deals with our own poverty, the second verse deals with other people’s poverty. With this interpretation, we can discover some profound insights into poverty.
  3. Let us start with the second verse. No matter how affluent a society, there will always be needy people in the land. We must always have our eyes open and put our hands out to the needy. The second verse focuses on how we look at other people. It is a call to give, a call that will never cease. Only in a perfect world can we stop thinking about tzedaka. There is a Hasidic story about a very righteous man who always gave a huge amount to the poor. He died, and people gathered from far and wide to pay tribute to his righteousness. About one month later the righteous man appeared in a rabbi’s dream. The dream was vivid. The rabbi asked him, “Tell me, you must be in heaven, a perfect place. What is it like?” The righteous man answered, “It is beautiful, but I don’t like it.” The rabbi was surprised. “How can you not like it?” he asked. The man answered, “In heaven there is no poverty, and so there is no chance to give tzedaka.”
  4. So what about the first verse? This verse speaks of how people view themselves. People should not see themselves as poor, as unable to provide for themselves. In particular, people should never see themselves as victims of poverty. If they do not have means to provide for their own or their family’s needs, they should not curse the rich, society, racism, or some other malevolent force out there. Each one should say, “I am not poor and I am not a victim.”
  5. One of our primary responsibilities in life is to be a provider. The world does not owe us a living. Each of us has to find a way to develop skills, find a job, start a business, or find some other legitimate way to move beyond poverty. To see yourself as poor can easily lead to seeing yourself as a victim, helpless before economic trends. Helplessness and victimhood are not healthy for self-esteem. How can we help people move beyond poverty to become self-sufficient?

 
 
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