Skip to content

Parashat Re’eh 5776 — 09/03/2016

Parashat Re’eh 5776 — 09/03/2016

Devarim 11:26-16:17

R. Steinsaltz identifies the uniqueness of parashat Re’eh as an emphasis on holy spaces, particularly the Land of Israel.

The introduction to the many laws that appear in this parasha and in Parashat Shofetim states, “These are the statutes and the ordinances that you shall carefully observe in the land that Gd, the Lord of your fathers, is giving you to possess” (Deut. 12:1). Thus, even laws that are not expressly connected to the Land of Israel are communicated in the atmosphere of preparation for life in the Holy Land, which is endowed with special sanctity and which serves as the setting for these laws.

Hence, we can easily understand that the Land has a special sensitivity and intolerance of defects. This sensitivity pertains not only to major defects such as sins of sexual immorality, regarding which the Torah stated previously that the Land will vomit out its inhabitants (Lev. 18:25), but to other laws as well, many of which are not obviously connected to the Land. The laws of forbidden foods, for example – which were already detailed in Leviticus with an emphasis on the sanctity of Gd, the sanctity of Israel, and the connection between them: “Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (11:44) – are repeated here in the context of the preparations for entering the Land, as though to say that it is inappropriate for the Land’s inhabitants to eat things that are not compatible with the uniqueness and special nature of the Land of Israel.

One aspect of the idolatry that we are warned against so often is that we not get involved with the “local” deities that were worshiped by the Canaanites who preceded us in the Land of Israel. R. Steinsaltz points out that this kind of idolatry was a particular problem for the Israelites who were first settling into an agrarian society, and one which is dependent on the naturally variable rainfall for its existence. Originally our ancestors were shepherds, and, when in Egypt, any agricultural activities they participated in were governed by the Nile’s floods and the irrigation systems built around them. Now, they were at the mercy of the laws of nature – the rain, the wind, the sun:

Hence, the connection to the earth involves not only a professional change but also a change in consciousness. When the People of Israel entered the Land, they had to learn to adapt to a world of seasons, agriculture, and an almost sensual connection to the land and its labor. When they found in the Land a preexisting practical and cultural foundation of connection to the earth, it is very difficult to distinguish between the professional, technical, agricultural side and the idolatrous element that was connected with it.

Every land has its own characteristics – its own climate, its own natural resources, orography, flora and fauna, etc. All these features have an influence on the people who live there. It may, over a long period of time, influence the people’s physical characteristics – for example, Inuit have more subcutaneous fat, an insulator, than people who live in warmer climates. On shorter time scales, cultures can evolve to make best use of available resources. In his seminal 1968 book Pigs for the Ancestors, anthropologist Roy Rappaport argued that the rituals surrounding the consumption of pigs among indigenous peoples in New Guinea regulated consumption so that maximum sustainable resources could be extracted from the environment. Essentially, ecological pressures mold culture. Since culture is more flexible than DNA, it takes a shorter time scale for this molding to take place.

We see something of this in our own society. When Europeans first came to the New World they encountered indigenous peoples whose culture was adapted to the various environments in which they lived. Unfortunately, instead of learning from them, we murdered them, drove them out, put them on reservations, and otherwise tried to destroy their cultures. We then proceeded to plunder the land as if its resources were infinite. The results have been problematic. While our technology has made our lives easier and expanded our life span, it has also poisoned our air, water and food supply. The growth of the “environmental movement” over the last several decades is a cultural response to the negative effects of a “development” that has become big enough and powerful enough that it now threatens human life on the planet.

It seems, then, that the Canaanites’ culture should have been well adapted to the land in which they lived. Yet their culture included abominations like child-sacrifice and ritual prostitution (male and female), as well as worship of trees and fertility idols. In fact, Torah tells us that it is precisely these practices that cut short their tenure in the Land, that the Land “vomited them out” because these practices were profoundly not in tune with the particular characteristics of the Land. And of course, the Israelites are warned of a similar fate should they adopt similar rites. How did something so maladaptive evolve?

I’d like to leave aside any considerations of population control. I don’t believe that the population at that time was so dense that it was an issue; certainly Jewish Law encourages having many children. Rather I would like to suggest that there is another level of ecology that we need to consider – spiritual ecology. The issue with ecology is that human beings must interact with the world to obtain essential nutrients and energy for life to continue. It does us no good in the long term to extract nutrients and/or energy from the environment in an unsustainable way – eventually the resource will run out and life dependent on it will cease. Similarly, if the resource is in the environment, but in a form in which it is inaccessible, it cannot support life and life will eventually cease.

I think spiritual ecology works the same way. Human beings’ bodies must be sustained from the material world from which they were formed, but human beings are not just bodies. We are primarily souls, spiritual beings, and we need spiritual inputs to keep alive as well as physical inputs. And just as there are levels of physical existence, from gross to subtle to transcendental, so there are levels of spiritual existence.

But the primary source of all spiritual input is from Gd, Who created the whole structure of existence to begin with. If we want to keep our spiritual ecology in order, then the best bet is to connect directly with the infinite source of energy and intelligence that is at the basis of all life, physical and spiritual. Trying to connect to localized sources, which themselves are only empowered by Gd in any event, is at best of limited value, and at worst can lead to all kinds of perversions. This of course goes even more for the People of Israel and the Land of Israel, both of which are under Gd’s direct supervision. It is our mission to live in a way that we become a conduit for Gd’s energy, grace and love can flow unobstructed into the world, and we certainly can’t do so if we put our own obstructions in the way!

Haftarah: Yishaya 54:11-55:5

This year Shabbat parashat Re’eh falls on 30 Av which is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul. According to my Artscroll Chumash, “some” congregations read the Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh, and presumably most read the regular Haftarah. I’ll comment on the very short (12 verses) regular Haftarah. On Saturday night we begin saying Psalm 27, L’David Hashem uri v’yishi, and continue with this reading after both Shacharit (in addition to the Song of the Day) and Ma’ariv, through Shemini Atzeret – that is, throughout the entire period of self-examination and t’shuvah surrounding the Days of Awe.

All your children will be taught by Hashem, and there will be abundant peace for your children (54:13)

Behold! One need fear indeed if he has nothing from Me … (54:16)

Why do you weigh out money for that which is not bread, and your toil for that which does not satisfy? Listen well to Me and eat what is good, and let your soul delight in abundance. (55:2)

The last two verses are of course meant to be taken metaphorically. In our modern world, where so much of our food is adulterated they could be taken literally as well. But all three quotes speak to the same theme – our need to draw our sustenance directly from Gd. To be sure, nature is the intermediary and we have to work with our bodies to obtain our nurture. But if we are truly connected to Gd – that is, if our mind has expanded to its infinite value and our perception sees that same infinity in all the objects of perception, then we are truly “delighting in abundance.” Even when we do have to work, we are able to harness an infinite source of energy to accomplish what needs to be accomplished without stress and strain. We are the infinite ocean that effortlessly rises in waves without ever losing its own immovable character.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parsha Re ‘eh

Re’eh” means “See!” or “Behold!”.

This is not ordinary seeing. This means see deeply, see into the level of life in which G-d’s commandments exist, not just the level at which we might hear them spoken or read them in a text.

This “See!” resonates with the last part of the parshah, in which Moses says that three times a year (at Passover, Shavout, and Succoth, our ancestors should appear before the L-rd – be seen by the L-rd – in the place which he has chosen – appear in the Temple of the particular tribe to which we belong, so we may bring offerings and be seen there.

And what is to be seen? The blessing if we hearken to the commandments of the L-rd and the curse if we disobey them. When we hearken, we see deeply, we are naturally in tune with G-d, G-d’s Torah, G-d’s commandments and we naturally act in the Glow, Joy and Love of the Blessing.

Imagine Moses speaking with the Voice of G-d to our ancestors: how much the Blessing must have filled them and how unappetizing must have been the curse.

This was a good preparation for Moses to give our ancestors as they were about to enter into Canaan, the Promised Land. It is a good level of Being that we should innocently seek to experience before beginning our day, any day, every day.

Temple where G-d chooses to put his Name [big mystery]

Maimonides writes: “The location of the Altar [in the Holy Temple] is very exactly defined… It is a commonly-held tradition that the place where David and Solomon built the Altar on the threshing floor of Arona, is the very place where Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac upon it; this is where Noah built [an altar] when he came out from the Ark; this is where Cain and Abel brought their offerings; this is where Adam the First Man offered a korban when he was created — and it is from [the earth of] this place that he was created ….” from

But why Adam was created from earth on this spot?

There is a tradition that Torah is G-d’s name, the primordial vibration of G-d, Omnipresent, All-Pervading: All places are Holy.

Why did G-d choose to especially emphasize the power of His Name in a particular place, and why Jerusalem? I’ve looked for answers on the Internet and could not find any.

There is G-d’s statement, “Man is made in G-d’s Image” and from this standpoint Jerusalem might correspond to the heart or the brain of the physiology of our planet.

I invite all readers to share with me any thoughts or facts they have.

Re’eh also warns to beware of false prophets or any others who entice idolatry—this would certainly bring the curse!

On the blessing side, Tithing, Charity, the Sabbatical Year in which all loans are forgiven, all slaves freed, indicate that even on the ordinary level of life, by being good human beings, we can attune ourself to G-d and inherit the Blessing.

Similary, Mose told our ancestors, at the time of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals: Passover, Shavuout, Sukkoth: Go to Temple to appear with offerings before the L-rd.

Re’eh begins with See! and concludes with: Appear so that you may be seen.

The lesson I take from Parsha Re’eh is that In any generation, especially ours today, we need to live our lives so that every moment we Behold! and every moment we appear with offerings, offerings to give back some part of the blessings we receive.

Baruch HaShem!