Sermons and Parsha'iot       Parshat Re'eh: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Summary

Parshat Re'eh continues Moses' second sermon to the people. It begins with the classic statement, "See (re'eh), this day I set before you a blessing and a curse" - a blessing if the people obey God's commandments and a curse if they choose to disobey. The parasha then shifts to the laws themselves, forming the longest section of Deuteronomy. But rather than presenting a comprehensive code, the parasha lays out general principles, relying on an unwritten oral tradition to specify the details.

Chapter 12 exhorts against idolatrous practices and introduces the theme that, once in the Land of Canaan the Hebrews are to worship only at "the site which Adonai your God will choose to establish his name." This is an obvious reference to the Temple in Jerusalem and was a part of King Josiah's powerful campaign to centralize the Hebrew cult. Once they enter into the Promised Land, they are to totally destroy the religious sites belonging to other nations no matter where they are located. They are to bring their offerings there and rejoice with their families by feasting at the place of sacrifice. Although the meat of sacrifices may be eaten only in Jerusalem, the Torah now permits the Israelites to slaughter animals for secular purposes and eat the meat elsewhere, but they may not consume the blood "for the blood is the life." The Torah repeats the basic laws of kashrut: Animals with cleft hoofs and which chew their cud may be eaten in addition to anything that lives in water which has fins and scales. Birds that are not birds of prey may also be consumed. There is a further prohibition against eating winged swarming things or anything that has died a natural death. A kid boiled in the milk of its mother is also forbidden.

Chapter 13 warns against prophets, miracle-workers, and dream-diviners who might try to woo the people into worshipping other gods. Even if their predictions come true, the Hebrews are to put them to death. Chapter 14 begins by forbidding two mourning customs that were common among other peoples in the ancient Near East: shaving the front of the hair and gashing oneself in grief. The chapter ends with rules about tithes: the Israelites are commanded to bring the first fruits, grains, wines, oils and first born of every flock to the place of worship that God will designate, and eat them there. In addition, they must set aside as an offering to God one-tenth of everything they grow as well as the first born of all their flocks and herds. (If someone lives too far from the designated altar to transport the animals, the animals must be sold and they must bring the money instead. Then they must buy food and drink and prepare a family feast before the Lord.) If the first born of the herd or flock is flawed or has a serious defect, it is not to be brought as a sacrifice to God. These defective creatures are to be eaten in the settlements. In addition, three times each year - at PesahShavu'ot and Sukkot - the parasha instructs the people to travel to a place God will choose, bringing gifts in accordance with what God has given.

Chapter 15 repeats the general principles of social legislation: Since the Levites have no land of their own, all property must be shared with them as well as with strangers, orphans, and widows. Every third year, every person is to leave one-tenth of everything in the settlement so that those who need can take their fill. Every seventh year, if someone owes money, the debt must be forgiven. If there is a needy person living in a settlement, one must not harden ones heart and shut ones hand" (Deuteronomy 15:7). If one owns Hebrew slaves, they are to be set free in the seventh year, and sent away with a fair portion of cattle, grain and drink. If a slave does not want freedom, the ear should be pierced as a sign of permanent servitude. If the people obey God's laws, God will bless them and make them prosperous. 

Commentary

Instead of beginning with the word "sh'ma" or "listen," as one might expect at the beginning of a set of instructions, this parasha begins with the word "re'eh," or "see." In other words, the Torah presents the blessings and curses as choices. The rabbis interpreted this to mean than each of us must "see" for him or herself and decide whether or not to obey the commandments. God, of course, urges us to choose obedience and therefore the blessing. Although we make choices every day, things often occur about which we have no choice. We do, however, have the choice as to how we see these things and how we respond to them. 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. What things have happened in your life that have seemed at first to be either a blessing or a curse, but have turned out just the opposite? Name some of the blessings in your life. How do you acknowledge these blessings? Discuss some things which seem to be "curses" in your life. 

  2. Parshat Re'eh refers several times to a central location for worshiping God. Although we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem as our central holy place, we have created our own holy places of worship in our temples, synagogues, and homes. How does your family celebrates the three holidays mentioned in this portion? Are there any similarities between how your family celebrates PesahShavu'ot or Sukkot and the celebrations described in this parasha? What are the differences? Is there anything you can do to include some of the holidays original customs? 

  3. Another theme repeated several times in this parasha is of sharing with the Levites and with the stranger, orphan, and widow. Although it is clear that the Levites did not have land or flocks of their own, why do you think that the stranger, orphan, and widow, also require special provisions? Are there other people in our society who have special needs? How should we provide for them? The idea of setting aside one-tenth of a person's wealth and offering it as a sacrifice was called "tithing." Could you tithe one-tenth of your allowance for needy people in your community? Which organizations or people would you choose to give your money to?

    According to Rashi, when giving tzedakah you must also consider the situation of the recipient and your relationship to them. The truly destitute are a greater the obligation than "brethren" or close relations; the poor in your city must be considered before the poor in other cities; those in Israel are considered before the poor in other lands. Do you agree with Rashi? 

  4. The Book of Exodus contains numerous references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Many commentaries imply that the warnings not to harden our hearts are to remind us that if we do it once, we run the risk of doing it again and again. Each time will become easier until it becomes our normal way of dealing with others. Can you think of any times that you hardened your heart deliberately? Discuss why you did. How did it make you feel? Did you eventually "soften" your heart? Why or why not? 

  5. In Re'eh we read about the blessings promised to those who obey the Torah and the curses to those who disobey. The modern Israeli commentator Nehama Leibowitz sees this as the basis for the Jewish understanding of free will. Are you totally free to choose how to act in all circumstances? Do you always know or consider the consequences of your behaviour?

    In the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua asserted: "Miracles in themselves cannot determine matters of reason and law." Why would God create prophets, miracle-workers, and dream-diviners whose words come true if we're not supposed to listen to them? Are there false prophets today? If so, are these individuals harmless or destructive to society? Would you consider the leaders of cult groups to be false prophets? Are some ostensibly political parties really cult groups in disguise?