August 23, 2014 – 27 Av 5774
Annual (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17): Etz Hayim p. 1061; Hertz p. 799
Triennial (Deuteronomy 11:26-12:28): Etz Hayim p. 1061; Hertz p. 799
Haftarah (Isaiah 54:11-55:5): Etz Hayim p. 1085; Hertz p. 818
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina
Israel is reminded that they are faced with a blessing and a curse: they will be blessed if they follow the commandments, and cursed if they do not.
The Israelites are expected to destroy Canaanite sanctuaries and to make sacrifices to God only in the place that God specifies. Slaughter of meat is permitted in other circumstances. Later, the portion details animals that are permitted and forbidden for consumption.
Worship of other gods is strictly forbidden, even if one is tempted by those who claim to be prophets, or by a family member or friend. A town that commits idolatry as a community is to be completely destroyed.
Mourners must not make holes in their bodies or shave their heads on account of their loss. Farmers are required to tithe, especially for the poor. Poverty must be reduced whenever possible. Servants are to be released after six years of work unless they choose to stay in the household forever. Firstborn cattle must be sacrificed. Proper observance of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot is detailed.
Theme #1: A Clear Choice?
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
The beginning of today’s Torah portion summarizes perhaps the ultimate theme of the book of Deuteronomy -- the choice of following God’s commandments or not.
Parashat Re’eh bids us “rejoice before the Lord of God.” Judaism has consistently recognized joy as the most fitting response to God’s abundant love. As the prophet Joel exclaimed, “Rejoice and be glad, for the Lord has done great things.” To look at the world and see those great deeds requires eyes trained to appreciate. Our tradition bids us to cultivate awareness, mindfulness, and beyond mindfulness, a thrill at being alive. Our traditions recognize that smelling the roses can be a religious act. -- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah
The verb “to see” in Hebrew is in the singular, but its object, before you, is in the plural. The reason is to teach us an important principle of faith and the meaning of being a Jew. For while the people of Israel are many, they are also effectively a singular corporate entity, for the root of their souls originates in the Only One of Being. -- Tzeror Ha-Mor
Take care that you do not go after “middle roads” and compromises. Behold: I have put before you two extreme opposites -- a blessing and a curse. There is no other alternative. If you do not chooose the path that leads to the blessing, you have thereby take the path that leads to the curse. There is no “middle road.” – S’forno
Questions for Discussion:
Rabbi Artson says that Judaism calls us to “cultivate awareness.” Other than awareness of the commandments themselves, how can modern Jews do such cultivation? Does it depend rely on attentiveness to our tradition’s many details? Or does it depend on seeing the big picture of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century? Or do we need to do a little bit of both?
Tzeror Ha-Mor teaches us that the essential thread that links all Jews together is our sense that there is one God who unites us all. Are there other threads which unite all Jews? If so, what are they? Is it important for Jews around the world to discover more of these threads? Is it essential to be united in matters of ritual, ethics, our understanding of Jewish history, and/or our relationship with the state of Israel -- or is being united under one God enough to ensure Jewish continuity?
S’forno sees the blessing and curse at the beginning of this portion as absolutes, but are they? Is it possible for something that is a curse for one person to be a blessing for someone else? Is it possible for our tradition to have “mixed blessings?” Is S’forno’s black-and-white understanding helpful to understand the importance of Jewish observance, or is it too simplistic?
Theme #2: Every Breath We Take
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh. (Deuteronomy 12:23)
One of the directives regarding eating animals reveals some of the Bible’s views on the essence of life.
As the part of the body that receives food and breathes, the nephesh is connected to the throat. In the metaphysical realm, the nephesh is that which experiences life and represents living (notice that the life, nephesh, is in the blood, Lev. 17:11, and the blood is the nephesh, Deut. 12:23). In the plural it can refer to persons, and is often related to the “self.” -- John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament
Although humans have unlimited rule over animals, they must restrain themselves from enjoying “the life” of the animal (that is, its blood). We need special strength for this restraint, hence verse 23 says “but make sure ...” -- David Hoffmann, Deuteronomium
From that which it says “make sure,” you learn that they were steeped in blood, to eat it. This is why it had to say, “make sure.” These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai says: The verse came only to warn you and to teach you to what extent you must exert yourself regarding observing the commandments. If regarding blood, of which it is easy to keep guard against eating, for a person does not desire it, [Scripture] needed to strengthen you regarding its negative commandment, how much more so for other commandments. -- Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:23
Questions for Discussion:
Walton relates that the word nephesh relates to many related yet seemingly different concepts: blood, life, self, flesh and breath. Is there a lesson based on the fact that the word refers to the very life of both a human and an animal? Is there a tension between the Torah declaring Adam to be the master of the other animals and the Torah’s call to respect all forms of life? To what extent does the Torah help or hinder the concept of animal-rights as understood today?
Hoffmann says that it takes a unique amount of restraint for humans to not consume an animal’s blood. This might sound strange to us today, but our tradition is filled with rules and directives that require plenty of restraint in order to complete them. Are dietary laws among the most difficult to observe in terms of will power? What other mitzvot require uncommon strength to complete?
Rashi sees the restraint demanded in this verse of our Torah reading as an illustration of the need for restraint from that which is especially tempting. What kind of emotional tools do we need to avoid succumbing to temptation? Do these tools underline the need for strength in our Jewish communities so that we can overcome temptation together?