Parshat Re’eh 2017
We can summarize the thrust of most of today’s parsha in two words: mutual responsibility. Yes, there are other subjects but the one that keeps reappearing is concern for one another and concern for the other. The parsha continually exhorts the Israelites to take responsibility in many different areas.
Examples. We have the law of shmitta, not only for the land but for debts. The annulment of debts every seven years. What a great idea, says a borrower. What a terrible idea, says a lender. You’re both right, says the rebbi. But rebbi, asks a third, how can both of them be right? You’re right too, he says. (Sorry, that just slipped in.)
The idea is that sometimes you need a clean slate, a new start after a rough patch. Something like annulling the 2.3 billion shekels Eliezer Fishman owed to banks and others. That is an imaginary number. Let’s give the guy a break and let him start again, fresh, and you know what, we’ll even throw in a billion or two for him to play with.
No, no, no. That’s not the purpose of the free pass, and the rabbis understood people like Fishman, which is why Hillel came up with the prozbul, a legalistic end-run around the absolution of money debts – to protect lenders (and the public) from someone who would take advantage of our gullibility and bilk us in the process. Kohelet had it right, there is nothing new under the sun. Fishmans and Dankners have always been around.
But there are, and there will always be poor people and in cases of true poverty, we are told not to harden our fists and hearts – instead we should open them to the needy, even (especially) just before the shmitta year. We see the many organizations that provide help to others. These particular laws have been observed and practiced extensively throughout the centuries, and if a government does not do enough, such organizations have to take up the slack and fill the void. Unfortunate but necessary.
We have the tithe (ma’aser) which in the third year goes not to the cohen but to the levite, who has no inheritance of his own, and to the poor and the widows and the orphans. You can’t forget about them. In fact, not forgetting the Levite is mentioned at least six times in the parsha (could that have been Moshe’s way of arranging things for members of his tribe? No! Not Moshe).
If an Israelite is down on his luck and must go into servitude, at the end of six years you have to release him, and not just release him but pay him for his services. Wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture? Didn’t the person go to into servitude because he couldn’t pay? Why should we, the lenders he owed money to – have to pay him now? His servitude was to pay off his debt. But no, a debt is a debt but servitude which recalls Egypt is so demeaning that a person needs to feel that he has earned something over the six years he was supposedly indentured. Again, we have to think about the feelings of others.
We also have laws that indirectly ensure mutual responsibility in non-economic matters. If a prophet or a visionary gives us signs and miracles that astound us, and come true, and we decide to follow him – we still have to be on our guard. The moment he starts talking about following other gods (think Shabtai Zvi) not only are we forbidden to follow him – we have an obligation to denounce him and, sorry, be the first in line to stone him. Why? Because he may lead a family or a town or a city or the entire nation astray and it is the responsibility of all Israelites to look out for the welfare of the entire nation.
Instead of listing examples of government policies that flout some of the specific laws in the parsha let’s try to understand at least one reason why we seem to have less empathy for others than in decades or centuries past, if that is true.
We will all agree that this is an era offering more means and channels of communication than have been available at any time in written history. Yet we – meaning Israel and most of the western world – communicate very little. We say a lot, too much, but most of it is superficial. Facebook, Twitter – these are platforms which allow us to spout emojis in words about whatever comes into our heads without having to provide a basis, justification or proof for any statements we make.
The results are depressing almost beyond belief. Some of the more outlandish tweets and statements of the President of the US. Feedback to articles in newspapers, even respectable papers like the New York Times, are often full of poison. On another level, we create euphemisms to prettify brutal or deadly events. To “neutralize” a terrorist. So you ask: Would it be better to say they were killed? Terminated? Defused? Or would using more direct language inure us to the fatal essence of such events? Would it be better than using the language we do? I don’t know.
Perhaps the need to mingle and spend time with other people, to share experiences with them in the flesh (and not through a screen) and to thus forge personal ties – perhaps this explains why the pilgrimage holidays form the closing section of our parsha.
By sharing events, in this case happy events, we come closer to others. Coming closer (usually) makes us care more and thus be more receptive to the mutual responsibility which is at the heart of our parsha and of our continued existence as a people.