Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
“Re’eh!” calls Moses at the beginning of our portion. “See! I am placing before you today blessing and curse.” [Deut. 11:26]. There is nothing odd or unusual about this verse, or about calling us to pay attention, especially when the stakes are high. It makes perfect sense, until a few verses later, when Moses warns us not to trust our own eyes:
“Do not behave as we do here, today, each person [acting] according to what is right in his eyes.” [Deut. 12:8]
On the one hand, we are supposed to use our eyes to discern between blessing and curse. On the other hand, we are explicitly warned against doing what is “right in our eyes.” How do we make sense of this contradiction?
We encounter the answer earlier in Deuteronomy, “And you shall do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord …”[Deut. 6:18 – bold is mine]. To make sure we understand this idea in context, Moses repeats it our parasha:
“… when you heed the voice of the Lord your God to keep His commands with which I charge you today, to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord your God.” [Deut. 13:19 – bold is mine]
In Re’eh, Moses presents us with a progression of unfolding spiritual truth. Torah generally emphasizes hearing over seeing when it comes to paying attention. That is why we have Shema Yisrael instead of Re’eh Yisrael. In the opening verse of Re’eh, we are told to use our eyes to “heed the command of the Lord” to get the blessing and avoid the curse. Then we are warned not to do what is “right in our eyes,” meaning putting our own agendas and personal desires before all else. Finally, we are urged to “heed the voice of the Lord” – to listen – so that we may do “what is right in the eyes of the Lord.” In other words, we must open our eyes, listen for God and then try to see not only through our own eyes, but through the eyes of God.
What does it mean to see through the eyes of God?
First, to see through the eyes of God is to look at the bigger picture. Astronauts, looking down on our planet, have reported how this difference of perspective has caused them to see how petty some of our personal, or even national, disagreements can be. When we see through the eyes of God, we see that there is a higher purpose to our lives and are inspired to reach towards the potential already present in Creation.
Second, to see through the eyes of God also means to seek out the good. In Deut. 6:18 a word is added to the clause: we are to do what is right and good in the eyes of God. Each day of Creation ends with God looking at the result and declaring it “good.” One of the personal soul-traits in the Mussar tradition is hakarat hatov (seeking out the good). If we want to really discover all of the good which surrounds us, it takes effort, and often requires that we look beyond ourselves. Rabbi David Greenstein writes:
“Psychologists and social thinkers have pointed out that our eyes will see what we want to see, what we care about. The Torah understood that we can choose to see with a different set of eyes. We can choose to look for and to discern goodness in this world. We can choose to look at the world through God’s eyes.”
Perhaps this is what Moses meant for us to discern. Perhaps the blessing and the curse lie before us every day – waiting for us to see. Perhaps God is still waiting for us to choose.
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ … If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” [Deut. 8:11-19]
With these words, Moses throws a gauntlet down before the Israelites, in effect saying: ‘Do not think that the forty years of wandering is the hard part, that once you settle the land your problems will be solved. The hard part will come afterward, when you feel safe and secure in your land, and the memory of your wandering becomes distant. Only then will your real spiritual trial begin.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “The real challenge is not poverty but affluence, not insecurity but security, not slavery but freedom. Moses, for the first time in history, was hinting at a law of history.” What is this law? It is this: complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization. What will this look like? Sacks continues:
“Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
It happened in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Greece and Rome, in Renaissance Florence and monarchal France, and in the British and Russian Empires. It is happening now.
Moses saw it all, and with extraordinary audacity, taught that it is possible for us to succeed where everyone else has failed. While every great civilization throughout history has eventually followed the same arc of growth and decline, we can do better. The book of Deuteronomy dares and challenges us to build a nation strong enough to overcome the very laws of history.
This is the great spiritual challenge we face – not just reaching the Promised Land but keeping it.
Today we see the signs of decline in both the United States and in Israel. Yet none of this is inevitable. There is a way forward, which Moses delineates carefully throughout Deuteronomy.
First, we must remember the Source of our bounty and cultivate both humility and gratitude. When we remove God from our midst, when we assume that human agency the only power in the world, then it is a short leap indeed to societal decline. For we will worship something in place of God, we always do. Moses reminds us to stay connected with God, lest we do the unthinkable, and begin to think that we ourselves are gods.
Second, if we put ourselves in God’s place, and assume that we are the ultimate authorities, then we will no longer be accountable – ethically or otherwise. Torah exists to teach us that there is a higher authority, and a higher ethical standard. To beat the laws of history, we need to stay true to the ideals and values of Torah, we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard, and teach our children to do so as well – even when it means swimming against the current.
Finally, when we remember that God is God and we are not, and we collectively work to build our lives and communities with Torah, then we can pursue justice not only for ourselves, but for all people.
Make no mistake: Moses knew what he was teaching. Taken together, the practice of humility and gratitude, accountability to a higher standard of behavior, and the pursuit of justice, are the building blocks of an enduring and life-affirming culture, and a society built to withstand the ravages of history. Many nations have risen and fallen since Torah was first given and received at Sinai, yet our success as a people and a tradition is directly connected to those times when, despite every force in the world pushing us to do otherwise, we have kept faith: with ourselves, with Torah, and with our Creator.
Today is no different.
There is still time for us to act.
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
“Shamor v’zachor” opines the poet in the beautiful L’cha Dodi prayer: “Observe and remember.” These words come from the Ten Commandments, or more specifically, the commandment to make every seventh day a shabbat, a day of rest and refreshment for both body and soul.
In the book of Exodus, during the Revelation at Sinai, God commanded us: “lizkor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Ex. 20:8] Yet, when Moses recounts the Ten Commandments in this week’s parasha, he s ays: “shamor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Deut. 5:12]
Why would God say “remember” and then forty years later Moses “observe?” Did Moses misremember? Possibly, but unlikely. Whenever anything is repeated in Torah, and there is a change in the text, that is a ‘red flag’ for us to pay close attention. When the Israelites first heard the commandments, the very idea of Shabbat was new and radical to them because the only way of life they had known previously was as Egyptian slaves. They had no experience or even knowledge of Shabbat, and needed to be reminded every week. Forty years later, presumably, Shabbat was no longer a new idea – so Moses urged the Israelites to keep it going.
So far, so good.
Then, in the 16th Century, kabbalist Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz wrote the L’cha Dodi prayer. He changed the order to “observe and remember,” choosing to quote Moses first and then God. To be fair, he wanted to create a poetic acrostic of his name using the first letters each of the first eight verses. “Shamor” starts with the same letter shin as his name “Shlomo.” If he followed the order of the Torah, the acrostic would fail in the very first verse!
I think there is more.
It made sense for the ancient Israelites first to remember, and then to observe. For today’s Diaspora Jews it is different. The secular flow of time does not follow the Hebrew calendar. Saturday is not a day of rest (except in Israel). We are pulled in so many different directions, that it is easy, outside of an orthodox community, to just go with the flow. Far too many of us no longer mark Shabbat regularly, if at all. As a result, we have forgotten what once we knew.
Shabbat is a radical, revolutionary practice. It was radical when God first introduced it to Israel, and it still is today. Until the advent of Shabbat, the world claimed us seven days a week. Shabbat teaches us that while the world does have a claim on us for six days, on the seventh day we can be free. It reminds us that while we need to work, both for the world and for ourselves, even God needed a day of rest. Shabbat undermines the status quo that never lets up, it lifts us above the fray so that we can reconnect with what matters most: each other, ourselves and our Creator. It is not a day for sleeping, but for cultivating the spirit, deepening our wisdom, and strengthening our relationships.
Today, far too many of us have lost the experience of Shabbat, and this is a multigenerational loss. The command to “remember” is meaningless, because we have no memories now to draw on even as the concept of shabbat is not new. A reminder will not work, we are already too busy. We need to “do” Shabbat first, even if it is only for a taste, so that we can experience what Shabbat can truly be for us. Then we can understand and remember and truly celebrate this precious and holy gift.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
We live in a complicated world, where senseless hate and violence are becoming ‘normalized’ and fear of ‘others’ is reaching new heights. This weekend, in Torah and Jewish observance, our tradition compels us to confront hate and fear though our weekly Torah portion, a special Shabbat called Shabbat Hazon, and Tisha B’Av.
Shabbat Hazon (the Sabbath of Vision) is named for its haftarah, in which Isaiah envisions the coming destruction of the First Temple. In our Torah portion, Devarim, Moses recounts how 10 of the 12 spies sent to scout out the Promised land, returned with an evil report rooted in fear of the ‘other.’ According to Midrash, God responded to the weeping of the Israelites by saying: “You want to weep? I’ll give you a reason to weep today.” The rabbis teach that this happened on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the most grief-ridden day in the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av was the day of multiple calamities throughout our history, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. On Tisha B’Av we mourn our losses, and struggle to learn from them. For example, the rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam (unjustified hatred). Our hatred for each other caused such divisions that our community became an easy target for the Romans to conquer.
Today we seem as divided as ever by our fears and our hatreds, and the violence which can result. El Paso, Dayton, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine and more. Some say that the cause is mental illness. However, the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing. Some say the cause is guns. However, the vast majority of legal gun owners do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing.
It is true that both mental illness and the easy availability of military-style rifles are a common thread for most of the people who have committed these heinous crimes – and we need to address them both. However, neither of these approaches, by themselves, will solve the problem. As Rabbi Michael Gold teaches, we must look at the underlying hatreds and fears that lead to this horribly repeated cycle of violence.
Hatred and fear go hand in hand. They drive the agendas of White supremacist groups who have a long list of enemies from immigrants to Jews. They eat away at those who feel victimized or bullied by the people around them (such as the Parkland shooter). Hatred and fear are the primary motivators behind both Islamist extremism and domestic terrorism. Yet it does not stop there. We live in a society rife with racism, homophobia and many other hatreds and fears of ‘other.’ Indeed, Rabbi Gold notes its existence “on college campuses among those who start out hating Israel and end up hating Jews.”
At least in theory (if our politics allowed it) we could shut down neo-Nazi groups, get better background checks on guns, reinstate the ban on semi-automatic weapons, and improve public mental health treatment. However, we all know that would require congress to somehow function across party lines.
What, then, can we do to stop all this hatred and fear? Begin with ourselves. We can fight the hatred and fear in our own hearts. How many of us fear or hate others within our own community? Be honest with yourself. What do you think of the ‘other?’ What do you think of people who have different colored skin, or speak other languages, or have different beliefs than you? What do you think of people who are either poorer or wealthier than you? What do you think of people who have a different sexuality than you, or who do not fit into either male or female genders? Here’s a really tough one, even if you think you are doing well so far. Regardless of whether you are a conservative or a liberal, what is your general feeling about the ‘other’ party? How strong is your disdain, distrust, fear, anger and/or hatred for them?
In Devarim, this week’s Torah reading, Moses begins a series of speeches all designed to help us to survive as one people in the Promised Land. During Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av, we can mourn not only the violent tragedies which our people suffered in history, but we can also mourn the violent tragedies of this past week in El Paso and Dayton. And we can use these days to examine our own hearts as we determine to fight hatred and fear wherever they dwell.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: the narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here with Israel encamped on the edge of the Jordan River.
It turns out that the book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah have concluded if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, did not deny the request but instead asked God, who granted permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to Moses’ ruling. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her inheritance.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefered the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land and asked to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses was concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if these tribes stayed behind and allowed them to settle on the east bank only if they fully committed to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They could leave their children and cattle behind, but the men would only be able to return once all the Promised Land was under Israelite control.
In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes precedence. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land.
If Torah really ended with the book of Numbers, then the final lesson would be clear: to inherit and thrive in the Land of Promise we must balance the wants of the individual with the needs and health of the collective.
“These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras