Re’eh 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

OVERVIEW

Moshe sets before the people a blessing if they follow God’s ways, and a curse if they don’t. Both worship and eating of meat are to be somewhat centralized around holy places that God will choose. Moshe warns the people about false prophets, idolaters, and lawless, completely evil cities, which are to be destroyed. Laws for eating, tithing, loans, the Sabbatical year, Israelite indentured servants, and the holidays are reviewed.

IN FOCUS

“If there is a destitute person among your kin in any of your gates in your land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

PSHAT

The context of these verses seems to be the Shmita, or Sabbatical year, during which loans are forgiven along with the well-known rest of the land. The Torah urges the people to make loans to the needy among them, and to eliminate poverty as much as possible. (Although a few verses later, it says that “there will not cease to be poor in the land”- is the Torah saying that this is an intractable problem? Or merely telling us to have realistic expectations of social change?)

The Torah warns against refusing to make loans in the sixth year of the seven-year cycle; since loans were probably paid back on a yearly crop cycle, loans in the sixth year were likely to be canceled by the Shmita the following year. Nevertheless, we are warned that a person will be held to account for their level of generosity in helping others.

DRASH

Although the contextual meaning of these verses seems to be related to the situation of the Sabbatical year, according to Rashba* this passage is actually the basis from which the ancient sages derived the general commandment to give tzedakah. Although we are urged to give generously to a variety of worthy causes, including basic human needs, education, communal religious needs and so on, Rashi and other commentators see in verse 7 a kind of hint as to the priorities of our giving.

Look at the verse closely: first comes a “destitute person,” someone who is really desperately poor and needs our immediate assistance. (This is Rashi’s understanding of the word evyon.) Then comes “kin,” according to how closely related they are to you: a brother comes before a cousin, one’s child before an uncle, and so on. Then comes a poor person within “your gates;” again, Rashi says that a poor person in your town has priority over a poor person in another town. Finally, “in your land;” similarly, a poor person of the land of Israel (i.e., presumably a Jew) has priority over a poor person in another land.

Now, one might make an objection to these principles, saying that all humans should be equal in one’s eyes, and no class of persons should have priority in our scheme of giving. That would be an admirable sense of universalism, and yet I don’t think that this interpretation of these verses has anything to do with thinking lightly of our obligations to those who are not of our family, town, or community. Rather, I think this interpretation of these verses is all about apportioning responsibility for each other in realistic ways.

To put it another way, it’s easy to be in favor of saving the world, but it’s hard to have a consistent commitment to saving one’s city block, really caring for the people who live on it and attending to any problems. To be responsible for everything is ultimately to be responsible for nothing in particular, and I think that’s what this midrashic reading of our verses is all about. One former teacher of mine, R. Mordecai Finley, sometimes defined the very essence of Judaism as (this is a paraphrase) “find your little corner of the world and make it just and holy.”

While some will still be uncomfortable with what they perceive as the potential chauvinism of these principles, it’s important to note that Rashi at least doesn’t make distinctions between the Jews of “your gates” and the non-Jews. He simply says that proximity demands priority; if every well-off citizen of every town saw to it that their locality had food and shelter and job training programmes for the local poor, then theoretically one would never have to worry about the poor in another town, because they’d be helped locally. (Please note, this discussion has no bearing on whether help is delivered by private individuals, charities, or governments- that’s a separate debate.)

This last point is made somewhat humourously by a story of a rabbi going on a fundraising mission:

    R. Yaakov David of Amshinov came to a rich man to tell him that one of his (the rich man’s) relatives was poor and needed some help. The rich man didn’t want to help and claimed that this relative was only a very distant relative- he hardly knew him. R. David asked the man if he prayed every day. “What question is this, rabbi?! Certainly, certainly !”

    “If so, ” continued the great sage- “how does the opening blessing of the Amidah [“standing” prayer said at every Jewish service] go?”

    The rich man was greatly surprised, but he answered out of respect for the rabbi: “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Yaakov. . . ”

    The rabbi kept asking: “And who were Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov?”

    “Our forefathers!”

    “And when did they live?”, asked the sage, not letting up.

    “Upwards of three thousand years ago!”

    “Yes, that’s right, more than three thousand years ago. Yet despite all that you mention them every day and you ask the Blessed One for mercy and help and redemption on the basis of the merit of these ‘distant relatives’ – and now I come to you to ask for a little help for your relative who lives right now and you’re claiming that he’s too distant a relation?” (paraphrased from Itturei Torah.)

Point well taken!

* [R. Shlomo ben Aderet of Barcelona, d. 1310- quoted in Itturei Torah.]

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