PARASHAT RE’EH - BIRKAT HAHODESH
August 27, 2011 – 27 Av 5771
Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 11:26– 12:28 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1085; Hertz p. 818)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York
Parashat Re’eh presents Israel with stark choices: to be blessed for obeying God’s commandments or cursed by God for disobedience. Upon entering the Land, Israel is to dramatize the fundamental choice confronting it by ceremoniously articulating God’s blessing on Mount Gerizim and His curse on Mount Ebal. Accordingly, Israel is commanded to destroy the idols and pagan sanctuaries it finds in Canaan. Israelite sacrifices are to be offered at a single sacral location, which God will designate; this cultic center will be the only place where it may eat sacrificial food. The Israelites are permitted non-sacred slaughter and to eat that meat wherever they live, provided, as they are told repeatedly, that they do not consume the blood. They are admonished not to forget to provide for the Levite, who has no territorial allotment.
Israel is commanded not to adopt the cultic practices of Canaan, nor even to inquire about or investigate its forms of worship, which include, notably, child sacrifice to Molech. Exacting fidelity to God’s law is commanded: Israel may “neither add to it nor take away from it.” The Israelites are specifically warned not to be lured into foreign worship by prophets or diviners, notwithstanding convincing signs and portents, and even should the “enticer” be a trusted loved one: brother, son, daughter, wife, or dear friend. Any such enticer – familial or prophetic – is to be stoned. Should it be discovered after thorough investigation that an entire Israelite town has been seduced into idolatry, its inhabitants are to be put to the sword and the town itself, together with all it contains, must be destroyed, “never to be rebuilt.”
Self-mutilation by gashing as an expression of mourning is prohibited. In later rabbinic law, this commandment is understood to prohibit communal “disfigurement” through divisive and sectarian partisan politics. Prohibited and permitted species of animals (land animals, birds, sea-life) are listed as a further expression of Israelite holiness. This section concludes with a third iteration of the prohibition not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Significantly, here this verse is placed in the context of dietary laws for the first time; until now it had been discussed as the pagan (and therefore forbidden) practice to which Israel’s festival offering of first fruits was the authorized alternative.
Laws of tithing are followed by a further undertaking in the interests of financial and social justice: the prescribed remission of debts in the seventh year – the sabbatical year. In the same spirit, the religious imperative to provide for the poor is laid out. Israelites who are concerned about the possibility that borrowers might default are warned not to withhold funds from the needy as the remission of debts in the seventh year approaches; such behavior is deemed “base” in character. Israelites who enter into indentured servitude, perhaps out of financial desperation, may be kept as servants for six years. In the seventh year they must be released.
At the end of their indentures such servants must be furnished with appropriate material goods. The nation that remembers enslavement in Egypt is compelled to treat its own servants compassionately – to humanize the institution of slavery. Slaves grateful for such kindly treatment may opt out of the scheduled manumission, choosing permanent indenture instead. All firstborn livestock, it is commanded, are sanctified by God and must be consumed only at His chosen shrine. If it is blemished, such livestock (without the blood) in the Israelites’ settlements. The parashah concludes with a review of the pilgrimage festivals (on which these passages are read liturgically): Passover, the counting of seven weeks to Shavuot, Shavuot itself, and Succot.
Theme #1: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8
“It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: The poor person standing at the door does more for the householder than the householder does for the poor person.” Midrash Vayikra Rabba
“Scripture already speaks of ‘a needy person, one of your kinsmen’ at the beginning of the verse. Why does it repeat ‘your needy kinsman’ the end? To show us what our attitude should be toward the needy, regardless of the suppliant’s background. If approached by a needy person who is honorable and from a good family, you will gladly give him what he needs, because you will want in your heart to do so. But God requires that if an ordinary beggar should come to you, whom you are not naturally inclined to assist, that you are not to shut your hand but shall assist him even if in your heart you are quite indifferent to his plight.” Imrei Shofar
“There is a separate mitzvah that the poor person should not have to convince one to give, and wait for him to find the money. Instead, one’s heart and hand must be ready for the mitzvah, so that as soon as asked he is ready and able to give. Thus the mitzvah is to prepare oneself to be willing to give.”. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein
“The Torah’s great social legislation is expressed in Re’eh in the mitzvot regarding three institutions: the tithe for the poor; the cancellation of debts in the shmittah (sabbatical) year; and the general obligation to give charity. We have the duty – and the ability – to abolish poverty from our society by observing the cancellation of debts and all the other mitzvot with social significance. In no social system will poverty disappear by itself. It is God’s will to make us responsible for abolishing poverty among us.” Yeshaya Leibowitz
“Charity is a strange word to the Hebrew language. In English, charity denotes philanthropy. In Hebrew the word is tzedakah, righteousness. Charity, then in the prophetic sense, means doing what is right, what God requires of every human being.” Rabbi Alfred Kolatch
Questions for Discussion
Imrei Shofar discusses the human tendency to relate more naturally and comfortably to those people with whom we believe we have much in common, and the need to transcend this prejudice. The verse itself, however, addresses the needy “kinsman” – a fellow Israelite, a fellow Jew. To what extent is it legitimate to prioritize our philanthropic giving based on shared religious (or national) identity?
Was Rabbi Yehoshua correct? What benefit accrues to the giver of tzedakah? Does this imply an inherent “need” in those of substantial financial means?
Imagine a conversation (or debate) between Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the author of Imrei Shofar. What relative importance would each give to the spirit with which a person provides materially for the needy?
Professor Leibowitz asserts that “it is God’s will to make us responsible for abolishing poverty.” With what other social responsibilities has God entrusted us?
How do we and our communities go about effecting such societal transformations? What “mitzvot with social significance” should most occupy the agendas of our congregations and educational institutions?
Theme #2: “Happy Days Are Here Again”
“You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.” Deuteronomy 16:15
“There are lessons concerning happiness and well-being that Sukkos can teach our present generation. First, that economic well-being is important, but that happiness depends upon what we are and not upon what we possess. Second, that standing still is wasting one’s life, while moving and becoming are the essence of creative living. And third, to cling to one’s idealism in the face of the hustle and bustle of contemporary society is living nobly and fully and fulfillingly.” Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin
“Happiness is not a synonym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Selfsatisfaction breeds futility and despair. Self-satisfaction is the opiate of fools.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“What in particular is it about Sukkot that makes it a time of joy? ...With Yom Kippur completed, the departure of the angst and anxiety intentionally cultivated by the liturgy and religious fervor during this season would cause a sigh of relief in anybody. Simply making it through the Days of Awe is enough to create joy. We are now ready to simply enjoy life. Who can help but experience a feeling of joy? But it may be a bit deeper than that as well. We take leave from the comforts of our lives on Sukkot. We spend our time eating and living in structures that at best are temporary — our roofs are insubstantial and our walls feeble. We intentionally remove the structures from around us to draw attention to what we are now more prepared to experience. After our days spent in awe, we can finally begin to appreciate the presence of God around us. We remove our material shelter and enter our spiritual sanctuary. This is the joy that surrounds us; the joy of the divine presence.” Rabbi Marc Wolf
“Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, is traditionally called the season of our joy... Joy comes from a fruitful harvest, when hard human work – joined to the soil, the sun, the rain, and the seed that human beings do not make – gives us physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance and the time to refrain from hard work so as to take joy in the One Who is present in all these aspects of the harvest”. Rabbi Arthur Waskow
“The joy of Sukkot and the lulav emerges from two sources: the process of identifying our personal bounties and the confidence that God will grant us another year of blessings. The Jew emerges confident from the Yamim Noraim, having stood intimately before God and having been given another year and another opportunity to participate with God in the betterment of ourselves and the world.” Rabbi David Hoffman
Questions for Discussion
How does the joy of Sukkot derive from Yom Kippur? By escaping its severity, judgment, and angst, as suggested by Rabbi Wolf, or through the confident faith in the new lease on life, the personal spiritual renewal it affords us, a la Rabbi Hoffman?
“You shall have nothing but joy,” the verse prescribes (or predicts). Is this a reasonable – or even a worthy – life goal? How does this concept accord with Sukkot practices such as the reading of the somber book of Kohelet… or recitation of Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret? Is it not odd that the very festival on which – by symbolically leaving our homes – we develop a sense of sensitivity to the homeless and needy… requires us to experience “nothing but joy” despite the suffering and desperate need of others?
Rabbis Wolf, Waskow, and Hoffman all discuss our relationship with (or enhanced awareness of) God as a primary element of Sukkot joy. In what ways can we cultivate this relationship – and the asserted boon to personal happiness it brings about – throughout the year?
Is the goal of Jewish religious life to achieve happiness, or to refine the practitioner’s judgment as to where to seek happiness and in how to define happiness? How does Sukkot uniquely serve these goals?
Is there an element of Passover or Shavuot that might have disqualified them as z’man simchateinu – the “season of joy” – in favor of Sukkot?
The haftara for parashat Re’eh, read on August 27, 2011, is from Isaiah: “Unhappy, stormtossed one…” On this date in 1667, the earliest recorded hurricane to hit North American landfall struck Jamestown, Virginia.
Shemini Atzeret is a festival in its own right, independent of Sukkot, notwithstanding its name,“The Eighth Day of Assembly” (BT Succah 47B-48A). The characteristic observances of Sukkot – lulav and etrog, hoshanot procession around the bimah, and sukkah itself – do not apply to Shemini Atzeret. Nevertheless, it is customary to recite kiddush for Shemini Atzeret, both evening and morning, in the Sukkah, though the blessing for the Sukkah itself is omitted (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 668:1). The use of the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret is linked to the principle of hiddur mitzvah – performing a mitzvah in the most beautiful way or setting possible. On Shemini Atzeret Eve we should be careful not to recite kiddush before nightfall, when it is still the final day of Sukkot and the blessing for the sukkah would be required!