19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Parshat Re’eh 2018
The litany of complaints, exhortations, history, mitzvoth and cautions that Moshe has spouted since the beginning of Devarim can easily cause us to get lost in a forest of details and miss the big picture and its ultimate purpose. That purpose has been hinted at during the first three parshot of Devarim, but in today’s parsha, Re’eh, the picture begins to take shape.
Re’eh, look, today I am giving you a blessing and a curse. Choose the blessing, and that’s life. Choose the curse and that’s death. It’s up to us. We are free to follow the path that Moshe has been describing or the other way, with all its consequences. As the haftarah says about those who don’t follow the straight and narrow, “They too have chosen their path and desire their abominations,” and I will answer them accordingly.
But this is more than the choice of a road taken (or not taken). It is a wake-up call to the people which says: I’ve shown you what you have done up until now but that’s finished. A new chapter is opening up in Canaan. It’s going to be under conditions you haven’t experienced during your 40 years of charmed existence in the desert under the benevolent care of our redeemer from Egypt. What happened before was intended only to set the stage. Don’t look back anymore because what’s behind you won’t help. Look forward and see where you are – and should be – going.
In this light, the rest of the parsha, and the book, makes absolute sense. You are coming into a land where God still reigns, but you are also on your own and this is how you are to build a society, this is how you are to treat the land and the various segments that make up the Israelite community.
It’s not going to be easy. You’ll have lots of problems to deal with and I, Moshe, am adding to these problems by insisting that you build a society that is just and sensitive to the needs of its many elements. And don’t forget, you’ll also have to work the land and treat it with the respect that something belonging to God deserves.
But that’s really old hat. We’ve seen some of this type of preparation before in earlier books and earlier in Devarim. What’s new is the preparation for the higher echelons, the leaders, the ones who are supposed to set the tone for us. Next week we’ll read about kings and judges and other leading figures. Today, Moshe begins with the figure most closely associated with him – the prophet.
What happens when a guy comes along and describes a vision he had, or performs an act that can only be supernatural. Should we accept him as a messenger from God? Now, we’ve been around the block a few times so we know the answer. What you see is not always what you get.
Interestingly, the only criterion Moshe gives us for deciding whether or not to accept a visionary or prophet is his ultimate message. If it is to continue serving our one God – that’s OK. But if he recommends trying out a new deity, one we don’t know and our parents don’t know – he fails the litmus test and his sentence is death. Remember, as soon as Shabtai Tzvi decided that it was better for him to convert to Islam than to be killed, he lost his last shred of credibility, and followers.
The various laws about which animals we can eat, bringing tithes, making sure the Levites have enough to eat, shmitta and revocation of loans – these are all aspects of how to build a society that functions properly, as Moshe sees it.
But at the same time that Moshe is laying these mitzvoth on us and directing us to moderate our greed (money made the world go round back then too), he is also giving us a second message. The word v’samachta and you shall be happy appears time and again: in your holiday, and in going up to the Temple, and in your offerings.
And we ask, what’s to be happy about? In all of these happiness tizzies we are giving away something of ours. And then we see – happy is a mistranslation, as well as being a difficult mitzvah to keep. And you shall love, and you shall be happy – how do you measure these mitzvoth?
So instead of “happy” let’s substitute: “take joy” or “enjoy.” That’s another matter. Because the joy we take is often mentioned in juxtaposition of sharing with our family and with others. In other words, between the lines, almost insidiously, Moshe is linking joy and enjoyment with sharing.
What is this, planting social consciousness in the seeds of our government and our lives in general? That reeks of socialism. Of paternalism. Of welfare state. Where is good old capitalism and all the spoils to the victor? Think about it, maybe that’s why Moshe wasn’t allowed into the country. Seeing how it developed would have killed him. Just kidding.
So Re’eh is a turning point. We are now squarely facing entry into a new world, a new life, a new society, much as our Zionist forebears did 130 years ago. We still have the blueprint for the ideal society. Hopefully someone will take a peek at it one of these days and try to revive it.