Archive for Re’eh

Re’eh: Hard Hearts and Tight Fists

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

Greetings from Newton Centre, your new center of internet Torah study!

Our hearts go out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, so although there are
many
subjects in this week’s parsha, including blessings, curses, tithes, dietary
laws, prophecy,
and the holy days, it seems appropriate to focus on laws of giving to those in
need. In that
spirit, at the end of this email you’ll find some links to Jewish agencies
collecting money
for the relief effort.

On to the topic at hand: in Deuteronomy 15, we read a warning not to hold back
when
someone is in need:

“If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of
your
cities, in your land the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden
your heart, and
you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open
your hand
to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.

Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, `The seventh
year, the
year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and
not give
him, and he will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin to you.
You shall surely
give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because
of this
thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your
endeavors. ”

(Devarim/ Deuteronomy 15:7-10)

This text is not all that difficult to understand: it is a call to compassion
when we find
fellow citizens in need. The Torah understands that it is hard to part with a
hard earned
shekel, and uses evocative language (do not “harden your heart” – like Pharaoh?)
to stress
its ideal of generosity and loving-kindness in action. So far, so good.

Notice, in the second paragraph quoted above, the reference to the “seventh
year.” This is
the shmittah or “sabbatical” year, the seventh year when the land lies fallow
and debts are
forgiven (cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus chapter 25). This explains the Torah’s
particular warning
about holding back in the later years of the cycle: a needy person might need a
loan in the
fifth or sixth year, but the lender would be reluctant to make a loan which
would get
canceled shortly thereafter in the seventh year.

Such reluctance would be perfectly understandable, but the Torah’s ideal is to
give (or
loan) freely- and that’s not just good for the recipient. The verses I’ve quoted
above
repeatedly link our emotions to our material goods- you shall not “harden your
heart” and
not give, and you shall not think an “unfaithful” thought, and you shall not
“begrudge” a
person in need. In other words, the Torah knows that our possessions often
affect our
emotions- we become protective of our goods, letting sums and quantities and
material
goods rule our hearts. To put it another way: if our possessions are directing
our
emotions, then sacred principles aren’t.

That’s why we have so many commandments to give- not only because people are in
need,
but because without the commandment, we might hold on tightly, letting our fear
of
insufficiency overcome our compassion and generosity. We give not only to help
others,
but to help free ourselves from being overly attached to material things. We
give so that
we can come to understand that that lovingkindness – hesed- is the truest
treasure. When
we give freely, with no hardness of heart, we remove the barriers of fear which
block our
love for others. That’s why this passage about giving concludes “for because of
this thing
the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors. ”

Is there a greater blessing than exerting ourselves in the practice of loving
others? This is
what giving is: a blessing for the one in need, a blessing for the one who
gives, and a
blessing from God enacted through human hands.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

Tzedakah links:

To give to the hurricane relief efforts, you can donate to United Jewish
Communities, which
will distribute money to local agencies:

http://www.ujc.org/

The Conservative Movement has also set up a relief fund:

http://www.uscj.org/Hurricane_ReliefYou_6553.html

PS- as usual, you can read the entire weekly parsha and special haftarah: here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS- The idea for this week’s study comes from something I read in a Torah
commentary
which I have now forgotten- but I think it was Yehuda Nachshoni’s “Studies in
the Weekly
Parsha.”

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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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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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