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Torah Sparks

Parashat Re'eh
August 3, 2013 – 27 Av 5773

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 (Etz Hayim p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 15:1-16:17 (Etz Hayim p. 1076; Hertz p. 811)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5 (Etz Hayim p. 1085; Hertz p. 818)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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 articulating God's blessing on Mount Gerizim and His curse on Mount Ebal. 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 sacrificial food may be eaten. The Israelites are permitted non-sacred slaughter and to eat that meat wherever they live, provided 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 its forms of worship, which include, notably, child sacrifice to Molech. 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 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. 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."

Laws of tithing are followed by an undertaking in the interests of social justice, that indentured servants must be furnished with appropriate material goods at the end of their service. The nation that remembers enslavement in Egypt is compelled to treat its own servants compassionately. All firstborn livestock, it is commanded, are sanctified by God and must be consumed only at His chosen shrine. 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: "Here lies Lester Moore… No Les, no more"

"Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it." (Deuteronomy 13:1 – sometimes identified as 12:32)

Derash: Study

"This blanket prohibition is problematic… the laws of Deuteronomy, like those of the Torah as a whole, are not a complete code that could have sufficed to govern all areas of life. Important subjects, such as commerce, civil damages, and marriage, are covered insufficiently or not at all. Further laws were obviously necessary. In order to prevent paralysis and leave room for necessary legal innovations, Jewish legal exegesis had to subject this verse to very narrow interpretations… By restricting the scope of the present verse, these interpretations left wide parameters for legislation and innovative interpretation." (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

"This prohibition is of more than theoretic interest in modern Judaism. The various attempts made by revolutionary religious leaders to ‘accommodate' Judaism to present-day conditions have all suffered spiritual ship-wreck, because they acted in defiance of either ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, or of neither shall ye diminish from it. On the one hand, some attempted ‘to diminish' Judaism by such vital things as the Sabbath, the Hebrew Language, and the Love of Zion. And, on the other hand, there are those who, besides, are prepared ‘to add' to the Jewish Heritage things that constitute a serious weakening of the Unity of God, and a radical departure from other fundamental principles of the Jewish Faith." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"There is a well known story concerning production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream that was presented with much fanfare in Yiddish... The advertising posters appealed to the people to come to see this ‘far-bessert un far-gressert' presentation of Shakespeare, claiming that the Yiddish production was actually an improved and expanded version of the original Shakespearean script! It is highly unlikely that any Yiddish translation could have improved on Shakespeare. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that any mortal philosopher or interpreter could improve on the laws of the Torah. Good intentions are not enough reason to mess with perfection." (Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald)

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Questions for Discussion

Is the prohibition conveyed in this verse indeed "problematic" – as Professor Tigay avers – or is its later interpretation as a "blanket" statement in reference to the entire Torah what renders it objectionable? That is: does the expansive application of this verse (ironically!) violate the very mandate conveyed by the verse itself?! How does our understanding of the text change if we read Deuteronomy 13:1 as Deuteronomy 12:32, and therefore simply as a summary in reference to that chapter only?

How are rabbinic bodies, individual rabbis, and caring members of the Jewish community to strike a balance between "radical departures" from the normative path of Jewish Law and practice – resulting in "spiritual ship-wreck"and responsible if judicious application of Jewish tradition to new social realities and contemporary conditions? Where has the Conservative Movement succeeded and failed in this ongoing and delicate challenge?

Consider the statements by Rabbi Buchwald and Saint-Exupery. Do personal additions or subtractions necessarily seek to "improve" upon Scripture (farbessert un far-gressert)? How might such personal or communal "accommodations" actually strengthen the claim of divine authority, reflecting humility rather than hubris?

How are we to understand holidays instituted subsequent to the Torah (Purim, Chanukah, Tishah B'Av, Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Yom Ha-Shoah, Yom Yerushalyim, etc.) in light of this verse?

Theme #2: "The Loan Star State"

"For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you." (Deuteronomy 15:6)

Derash: Study

"'They will not dominate you.' A nation greater than you. Rather, you will be absolutely free and sovereign." (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, Haamek Davar)

"'You will dominate.' Economically." (Chumash Etz Hayyim)

"We believe in the fundamental strength of Israel's economy and have confidence in its long-term potential." (White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, 2002)

"Thanks to quality education, Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world... Israel is advancing in high-tech even more than other developed countries." (Bill Gates)

"The fact is prosperity has a purpose. It's to allow us to pursue ‘the better angels,' to give us time to think and grow." (George Herbert Walker Bush)

"Beware the serpent, slyly hid, which stings the soul with poison of Prosperity." (Edward Robeson Taylor)

"Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New." (Francis Bacon)

Questions for Discussion

Is it unseemly to view material prosperity as a divine blessing? Or is it ungrateful not to do so?

Are the economic growth and technological advances of the State of Israel integral to the miraculous nature of the rebirth of the Jewish State? A fulfillment of God's promise in this verse?

The Netziv, Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin, died in 1893, well aware of nascent political Zionism. How might this have shaped his reaction to our verse?

Bacon and Taylor are suspicious of prosperity. Are their concerns (prosperity as poisonous serpent!) valid? Does President Bush (the elder) overstate the case for prosperity as facilitating "our better angels"? What do Jewish ethics have to teach us about the blessings and risks of material wealth?

Why is the divine promise of prosperity in our verse linked so explicitly to the issue of loans? Compare our text to the prayerful petition of Birkat Ha-Mazon: "Lord our God, please do not make us dependent upon the gifts of mortal men nor upon their loans."

Does prosperity (or material need) tend to bring us closer to God, or to alienate us from the divine?

Historic Note

In the third "haftara of consolation," read on August 3, 2013 in conjunction with parashat Re'eh, Isaiah conveys God's promise of a bright future to Israel: "You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear… Whoever would harm you shall fall…" On August 3, 1492, all Jews were ordered expelled from Spain, one of the tragedies of Jewish history lamented on Tisha B'Av.

Halachah L'Maaseh

As the final month of the Jewish year, Elul immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. The entire month serves as period of preparation for the Days of Awe (See Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 177, citing Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer 46). The distinctive liturgical elements of Elul include sounding the Shofar at weekday morning services (exluding Shabbat and Erev Rosh Hashanah: see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:3, Rema ad loc). A further Elul observance is recitation of Psalm 27 (often called the "Penitential Psalm") at every morning and evening service. Many continue this daily recitation through Hoshana Rabbah. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (the "Chida") recommends reciting Psalm 27 following every service throughout the year! (Moreh B'Etzba 2:37)

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