Re’eh 5761

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 5761 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 centralized around holy places that God will choose. Moshe warns the people about false prophets, idolaters, and lawless cities, which are to be destroyed. Laws for eating, tithing, loans, the Sabbatical year, Israelite indentured servants, and the holidays are reviewed.

IN FOCUS

“And when Adonai your God will bring you to the land to which you are coming, to inherit it, you will put the blessing on Mount Gezerim and the curse on Mount Ebal. Aren’t they across the Jordan, beyond the way of the sunset, in the land of the Canaanite, who dwells in the valley, opposite Gilgal, near the oaks of Moreh? ” (Deuteronomy 11:29-30)

PSHAT

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moshe stresses the importance of maintaining faithfulness to God’s covenant. As a kind of “audiovisual aid,” he designates one mountain as the mountain of blessing (for those who stay loyal to covenant) and one mountain as the mountain of curse (for those who stray), and asks the Israelites to consider the choice they must make. These mountains are in the Land of Israel, which reinforces the idea that inheriting the land brings with it a special responsibility to choose one’s actions wisely.

DRASH

Continuing from last week our exploration of the new commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman, we find that Friedman finds theological insight in an otherwise obscure geographical reference:

    The first place to which Abraham comes when he moves to Canaan is the oak of Moreh (Genesis 12:6). There YHWH is said to appear to him for the first time (which is also the first time that God is said to have appeared to anyone in the Bible.) There YHWH says for the first time that He will give the land to Abraham’s descendants. And there Abraham builds the first altar to YHWH in Canaan.

    Now the oaks (or oak; the Septuagint [Greek translation] has the singular) of Moreh are mentioned just before a statement that those descendants are now about to “come to take possession of the land.” It is thus another signal that the merit of the ancestors is a source of protection and well-being for Israel many generations later. In this case, because Abraham listened to God’s first command and left his home for a new land, his descendants now come to that land.

Friedman is not the first commentator to notice that the “oaks of Moreh” show up in both Genesis and Deuteronomy- the ancient midrash Sifrei, quoted by Rashi, identifies this place as the city of Shechem, based on the verse from Genesis. Friedman, however, goes one step further in bringing out the theological significance of Moshe’s subtle reminder of Avraham and the promise that was made to him.

This theological idea is sometimes called zechut avot, or the “merit of the ancestors.” It’s expressed in the Bible by the idea that the Israelites will inherit God’s blessing because of the forefathers and foremothers. We also see the idea of zechut avot in the High Holiday prayers, when we remind God of the righteousness of our forebearers and ask forgiveness on their merits, rather than our own.

Zechut avot is a central concept in classical Jewish theology, yet it is also difficult for many contemporary Jews to accept at face value the idea that they are being “judged” not on their own deeds, but on the merit of distant, ancient ancestors who may even be regarded as legendary rather than historical figures. Yet I think zechut avot can also be a powerful call to both individual humility and self-understanding as part of a historical, evolving community. Humility comes from realizing that anything that one might accomplish is built on the accomplishments and with the assistance of others- no (hu)man is an island. Each of us is who we because of those who came before us; we have free will, but we exist in a historical chain of being.

Thus, on the High Holidays, when I ask the Holy One to remember the merits of my ancestors, I’m also reminding myself of my deep roots in the Jewish people. I’m reminding myself that all my insights into Torah, into theology, into life itself are built on the insights of those who came before me. I’m reminding myself that the Jewish people’s relationship with God existed before I did, and will continue on after me, with all the gratitude and responsibility that implies. I’m reminding myself that even though I might “cross over the Jordan” in my spiritual journey, I’m bringing with me the felt presence of the God of Israel, a Presence just as real to me as to my ancestor Avraham by the oaks of Moreh.

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