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Parashat Re’eh - Rosh Hodesh Elul
August 15, 2015 – 30 Av 5775

Annual (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17): Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799
Triennial (Deuteronomy 12:29-14:29): Etz Hayim, p. 1068; Hertz p. 804
Maftir (Numbers 28:9-15): Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (Isaiah: 66:1-24):  Etz Hayim, p. 1220; Hertz p. 944

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 a 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. The observance of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot is detailed.


Theme #1: Family Feud

​If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend, which is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which you have not known, you, nor your fathers; of the gods of the people who are around you, near you, or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; you shall not yield to him, nor listen to him; nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. (Deuteronomy 13:7-10)

Don't be fooled by imitators, God says: false prophets must be eliminated -- even if they're related to you.

Who among us can fail to shudder at the thought of loved ones informing on one another’s private words and acts? We are certainly not the first to recognize the danger lurking in exhortations to annihilate another culture. Those before us had many vivid associations with revolts and atrocities even more horrifying than our own. We, like our Jewish ancestors, search to fit these harsh scriptural words into a scheme that promotes the true and divine purpose of our written and oral tradition: to usher God and holiness into the world and into our lives. -- Rabbi Laura M. Rappaport, “A Time to Tear Down, a Time to Build Up,” from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

This refers to your father. Scripture has stated explicitly for you those who are dear to you. All the more so for others. -- Rashi on 13:7

Scripture speaks of that which is common, for the words of the inciter are found only in secrecy. -- Sifrei


Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Rappaport argues that we need to try to look past the scary prospect of harming someone in our family and to consider the larger mission of holiness and reverence for God. Finding different levels of Jewish observance within one family is almost universal. How do we honor God while simultaneously honoring our family? Are there any religious standards worth causing a rift in our families? How is the answer to that question different today than it was 25 or 50 years ago?

Rashi reminds us that just because one's parents are not mentioned among the relatives in this passage does not mean that they are not included in the law, and that their inclusion in this precept goes without saying. Can we accept Rashi's logic, or do we sometimes take for granted our parents' inclusion in our families? Should our parents take a back seat in our minds if/when we create families of our own, or is that unfair to them?

Sifrei reflects on the nature of secret communications, which the Torah notes that we should bring into the open if we are incited to sin. Many professions have strict codes of confidentiality in which some information can be revealed publicly only if it causes harm or if there is an imminent threat of harm. Even for those not in these professions, how do we determine whether secret information has crossed the line? In light of recent technological advances, is it better for us to abandon the notion of secrecy, or do we have to work harder to keep it intact?


Theme #2: The Chosen

You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people. (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

Even the way we treat our bodies matters to God, because of our special status in the world.

Chapter 14 looks back to a major priestly concern. Indeed, the word “holy” appears in verse 2, just as it did in conjunction with Israel the “special treasure” (mentioned here as well) in Exodus 19:5-6. -- Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

A text discovered only [last] century has suggested to some scholars the possibility that the prohibition upon seething a kid in its mother’s milk was directed against a Canaanite fertility rite, a discovery bolstered by the fact that the preface to the dietary laws in Deuteronomy 14 stresses that “YHWH your God chose you from among all the peoples on the earth to be his treasured people” (verse 2). Israel is to be different. But what is the nature of her special identity? In these texts, Israel’s uniqueness lies not in the area of justice or health or any of the other things which we might consider desirable. It lies in holiness. -- Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion

The Torah has a different “Son of God” than the king. According to the Torah, the people of Israel as a whole are the son and firstborn of God. Through Moses, God says this directly to Pharaoh, and Moses repeats it to the people: “You are children of the Lord your God”. As scholars have noted, we see in the Torah a tendency to democratize all royal titles and attributes that originated in the culture of the ancient Near East. … Thus, in Assyrian writing, we find the idea that the king has the image of the god Bell, while in the book of Genesis, it is said that all human beings are created in the image of God. -- Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony


Questions for Discussion:

Fox mentions that repetition of particular keywords link biblical passages with one another. How does the notion of the Israelites being a "treasured nation" relate to how we are commanded to treat our bodies? To what extent do we need to be physically whole so that we can be spiritually whole as well? If our bodies have little to do with our level of holiness, what other traits do we need to have so that we can approach a holy way of life?

Levenson continues the theme mentioned by Fox. How do we best define holiness today? Is it acting like God? Is it acting the way God wishes us to act? Is it acting differently than other people so that we remain culturally and intellectually distinct? Is it separating ourselves from other people who don't share our values? And, as Levenson wonders, does holiness necessarily mean acting in a more desirable way, or just in a way that God desires?

Knohl fixates on the notion of being "the children of God." On the High Holy Days, we famously pray to "Avinu Malkeinu" -- our Father and King. Is it more effective to think of God as a parent or God as a monarch? Does it depend on the situation?

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