Friday, September 02, 2005

Parashat Re'eh - The Return


Let us remember that Sefer Devarim opens with a very specific description of place: that Moshe spoke these words “… on the other side of the Jordan, in the Midbar, in Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahab, eleven days from Chorev, by way of Mt. Seir, to Kadesh Barnea…” The first observation we drew from this was that the entire Torah was written “on the other side of the Jordan”, meaning it was intended for those of us physically residing in the Land of Israel. There continues to be much debate as to whether there is a Mitzvah to live in Israel – or even as to the Torah-based validity of the existence of the State.

Those who argue against the validity of the State of Israel as a political entity quote, for example, the Rambam who does not list Yishuv Eretz Yisrael – Dwelling in the Land of Israel – among his 613 Mitzvot. The counter argument is that, like the commandment to Be Holy, the Rambam does not list as separate Mitzvot actions which are, themselves, preconditions for the Mitzvot.

Those of us who came to Judaism in the renaissance of observance during the last quarter of the twentieth century have been well indoctrinated with A.J. Heschel’s notion that Judaism sanctifies Time, unlike other religions which sanctify space or objects. Let us be careful how we view ourselves: the very first Rashi on the very first Pasuk in Bereshit speaks about our possession of the Land of Israel. The word Makom, meaning Place, appears 90 times in the first four books of the Chumash. In Sefer Devarim it appears 35 times, of which eighteen in this week’s Parasha alone. The tying-together of our spiritual development with the physical world proceeds at a rush, through this Parasha in particular.

As we saw last week, the word Eikev is related to the sense of hearing. It introduces blessings that will come to us because we listen, including the second portion of the Shema. In contrast, this week’s Parasha is called Re’eh – See. As we have learned through the experience in Mizraim, the danger in seeing too much is that we become fixated on what we see – we desire it. We take it. The act of seeing is intrinsically, if not devoid of morality, certainly problematic in its moral implications.

Which is why G-d tells us: “See, today I place before you a Blessing and a Curse.” To continue the Abraham parallel that has been a theme throughout the last several Parshiyot, the text goes on to state where the Blessing and Curse will be found: on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, in the Land of the Canaanite, “… beside Elonei Moreh…” in other words, a return to the Place where Abraham first entered the Land. Bereshit 12:6: “And Abraham crossed into the Land until the place of Shechem, at Elon Moreh…” Once again, the text emphasizes that we are being brought full circle. We are returned physically. We are expected to be prepared spiritually.

What is the meaning of the Blessing and the Curse, and how do they relate to Possession of the Land? The text seems to indicate that the dangers that lie in wait for us, once we have crossed over the Jordan and taken possession of the Land, are dangers associated with the act of Seeing.

The Gemara in Megillah says that, at the Covenant Between the Pieces, Abraham feared that G-d’s promise to him, that the Land would belong to his descendants forever, was conditional on continued righteousness – both his own, and that of his descendants forever. This is the Gemara’s interpretive reading of G-d’s exhortation to Abram at Bereshit 15:1: “… ‘Do not fear, Abram. I am your shield; your reward is very great.’” G-d instructs Abraham to use animals for sacrifices, telling him that, by bringing these offerings, Abraham’s seed will continue to gain merit. Abraham counters: one day the Beit HaMikdash will be destroyed, and then there will be no more sacrifices, no more merit. Then we shall lose the Land? What then, asks Abraham. What then?

G-d assures Abraham that the recitation of the prayers, and the repeated listing of the Sacrifices in our prayers, will be counted as though we had brought the sacrifices themselves, and so we shall retain Merit throughout our generations. Abraham accepts this and carries out the Covenant Between the Pieces, leaving us with an eternal obligation to pray.

While we continue to dwell in our spiritual plane – enthused with A.J. Heschel’s notion of Sanctification of Time – let us recall that the life of a Jew in 21st Century America is fundamentally different from the lives of Jews everywhere else. In the civilized countries of Western Europe, Jews are again being made to feel unwelcome. The memory has not yet faded, the blood not dried on the hands of the murderers, and our sisters and brothers are again being told they are not welcome in countries they have inhabited for a thousand years or more. The fact that Arab populations also have legitimate grievances does not explain the failure of the Powers – the United Nations, the European Union – to force the issue from both sides. The travesty of the litany of blame laid at Israel’s door underscores the fact that so many of the Moral Leaders of this world, from the Pope to Nelson Mandela, have feet of clay. The refusal to support the Jewish People in anything but ambiguous terms – the need to embrace the likes of Yassir Arafat – all this proves that the lessons of history have been well learned: You can not stamp out the Jewish presence, so you have to keep trying. If anything is clear, it is that we continue to live as Jews at our peril. Many of us believe that G-d’s Plan for the world includes a special destiny for ‘Am Israel. That does not preclude us from having a state, a political entity. The notion of Mashiach does not preclude us from standing up for ourselves.

The Torah is in its entirety a book that makes the case that we belong in Eretz Israel, and that the Land of Israel belongs to us. There is no arguing that is what the Book is ultimately about. And the vastness and complexity of Torah is such that it makes the case on a Cosmic plane, on the plane of Divine Justice, on the level of Societal Worthiness, from perspectives of Manifest Destiny, and on multiple levels of family, social, and individual moral preparedness, spiritual imperative and, ultimately, historical inevitability.

Viewed as a work of propaganda, the Torah is masterfully structured. The entire Book of Genesis, as Rashi observes, is extraneous. It does not serve to teach laws. What it does, rather, is paint the deep background picture, the special relationship between G-d and the lineage of Sarah, the descendants of Ya’akov, that give us the spiritual and ultimate moral right to the Land. In short: if you accept the truth of Abrahamic religion, you must accept the notion that G-d gave this Land to us, Abraham’s descendants.

The Book of Deuteronomy is also not clearly part of G-d’s direct message, but comes cloaked as Moshe’s retelling of the three middle books of Chumash. In its character as One Man’s Derash on Torah, it contains plenty of fine polemic, especially as regards our taking possession of the Land. Clearly, Moshe qualifies as the first Religious Zionist.

From a perspective of spiritual development, we might even say that Shabbat and the ritual observances we learn in the Midbar are only geared to ensure that we remain morally suited to acquire the Land. The very notion of Shabbat does not appear until we are out of Mizraim. Abraham, Yitzhak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Moshe… none of these observed Shabbat. There was no additional tribulation added to the sufferings in Mizraim by our being forced to work on Shabbat. Now, in Sefer Devarim, we return to the original read of G-d’s message: the Torah is about Place. About a specific place.

And to those who argue that Living in the Land is a Mitzvah, we can counter: it is G-d’s guarantee, why do we need to make of it a Mitzvah?

Our relationship with G-d has become much more complex than ever it was between G-d and Abraham. The Land is G-d’s Promise to us. In return, the inheritors of Abraham’s Promise have also inherited Abraham’s side of the Covenant, that of maintaining Halacha, as well as moral perfection. This is the equivalent of children bearing the obligation to satisfy their father’s debts after his death, a topic on which the Gemara has much to say, including differentiating between land and moveable property in the obligation to satisfy the debts of an estate. It would seem that our obligations are now threefold: we must live in the Land, but in order to continue to merit living in the Land we must observe Mitzvot, and we must maintain a high moral standing as a people. Alas, killing animals at the altar is so much easier…!

Our Parasha instructs us to destroy and raze the places in which the Canaanites sacrificed to their gods, and to only bring offerings to G-d in specified places. The notion of sanctification of place is turned inside-out: it is not we who sanctify places by bringing offerings there; rather, it is G-d who directs us to a sacred spot, where we then bring our offerings. This, again, corresponds to Abraham who was told, at the Akeidah, to go to the Place which G-d will choose. For us, the map is much less clear. We must be extremely careful.

It may be forcing the interpretation to rely on the use of the word, but in Bereshit 4:3-5, the text states that G-d “turned towards” Hevel and his offering, but “did not turn” towards Cain and his offering. It does not use so many other words that might seem more logical: G-d does not Accept, or Favor, or Reward, or Love Hevel’s offering. Rather, the text paints the physical picture of G-d turning to face in one direction – and away from the other. G-d’s “attitude” towards humans is the physical relationship in which we stand, as much as it is spiritual. The corporealism of the Torah here underscores the moral and ethical relationship between G-d and Israel.

Let us examine one other aspect of this week’s Parasha, to see how it adds to the picture. Starting at 12:20, the Parasha discusses the new permission we are being granted to eat meat according to our appetite. This is analogous to the “permission” granted to Noach. The text in Parashat Noach makes it plain that G-d is not encouraging us to eat meat. Rather, G-d appears to be giving in to the inevitable: humans are evil (G-d’s own words, not mine) so I can’t stop them doing evil things; I might as well let them eat meat. Rather than actively sanctioning the killing of animals, G-d turns away, sadly perhaps, and permits what even G-d can not prevent.

In today’s Parasha, G-d does the same for Klal Israel, giving us blanket permission to slaughter animals for their meat. In the Midbar, animals could only be slaughtered for consecrated purposes, only at the designated spot at the Mizbeach, by the Cohen. Now that we are about to enter the Land, we are given permission to kill and eat animals for non-sacred purposes. As G-d “decriminalized” the eating of animal flesh by Noach and his descendants, now G-d recognizes that we will eat meat after we have spread out throughout the ,Land. The danger is that, in our effort to stick to accustomed practices, we will make ad-hoc altars and slaughter animals as sacrifices every time we want a Big Mac. We have just been commanded to destroy the places of idol worship, and not to choose our own places to sacrifice to G-d, but to bring offerings only where G-d instructs. G-d clearly recognizes that there’s no having it both ways.

So here we are. This is our Place – our Land. In our Land, we must try to be holy. Even outside of the Land, we must practice holiness.

Rashi, quoting the Sifrei on last week’s Parasha, indicates that there is a very real sense in which all Mitzvot we perform outside of the Land are merely practice, preparation for when we are where we are destined to be. Like Aharon, we must live our lives in constant readiness. Like Cain, we should bring offerings out of the desires of our hearts – but we must learn from his experience too; we can only give, we can not require that G-d accept us.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ztz’l, speaking between Hakkafot one Simchat Torah, told the story of Cain and Hevel. He said that most people are like Cain. Cain, whose own merit was so great that he was actually the brother of the man whose offering was accepted by G-d! But Cain’s response, instead of gratitude, was of jealousy and rage. Of Hatred for no reason.

We have just come through Tisha Be’Av, the Beit HaMikdash destroyed through Sinat Hinam – Hatred for no Reason. And we have just seen the stirrings, in the historic events in Eretz Israel, of Ahavat Hinam – Love for no Reason. The message of Cain and Hevel is that we must bring the offerings whenever our hearts move us, and let the blessings fall where they may. The message of this week’s Parasha is that the Land is ours, whether we want it or not.

And we are G-d’s whether we act it or not.

Yours for a better world.


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