Re'eh (Weekly Torah)

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0000poverty-and-wealthA Pragmatic Balance (5773/2013)

As Parshat Re’eh begins, Moshe says, “Re’eh: See, I set before you a blessing and a curse.” Usually, I think he is offering a choice between two behavioral paths: purposeful justice or callous indifference. This year, however, I think differently: Moshe reminds us that governing a nation brings both blessing and curse.

Recently my husband and I walked along Vancouver’s Fraser River Trail. “How wonderful,” I thought, “that Vancouver works to preserve our natural ecological wealth and beauty.” Then I read the interpretive signs lamenting the industrialization that damaged the area and led to the urgent need for this too-small park. Which is the real Vancouver? Vancouver that partners with the natural environment, respecting the work that other life forms do to maintain the geography in which we work? Or Vancouver, the international economic mecca that consumes land to employ, house, and feed people, even as we pretend not to? Which core value drives us – preservation of biodiversity or economic growth?

As I begin to read Parshat Re’eh, I think, “These teachings are so beautiful!” Create national unity. Don’t splinter into antagonistic subgroups. If you eat animals, remember that every meal takes a life. Extend your hand to those poorer than you. Creditors, forgive your debtors their debts every seven years, so you won’t create a permanent impoverished underclass. And then I get to the other parts: if anyone tries to lead you away from these teachings, kill them. In fact, destroy their entire city. Which is the real message of Parshat Re’eh? Inclusivity, community, social justice, and care? Or self-protection, violence, and particularism?

Both messages, of course, are real. A good government both supports its people and protects them; the very difficult challenge is to find a balance both pragmatic and just. May our prayers for peace and justice in our countries be realized.

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Forgiveness of Debts (5772/2012)

Parshat Re’eh contains an obvious contradiction, an internal paradox inviting us to leap into new ways of thinking. Torah says: If you who lend money forgive the debts owed to you once every seven years, there will be absolutely no poor people among you (Deut 15:4). But, because there will not cease to be poor people among you (Deut 15:11), when your kin fall upon hard times, you must be prepared to lend them money without charging interest.

On the one hand, Torah says that some of the causes of poverty will never go away. Illness, family disruption, and natural disasters will leave some people unable to work. People in these transient situations will need interest-free loans so they can weather disruption and create a more stable life.

On the other hand, Torah says that a single setback can start a chain of poverty that lasts for generations. Someone might borrow money, make modest progress, be unable to pay the money back, need a second loan, be less able to pay it back…and eventually be required to offer years of unpaid labor to the creditor to make things right.

This cycle, Torah says, is a terrible kind of slavery. So, a stopping point, a kind of economic reset button, is needed to prevent it. Hence Torah mandates the sabbatical year of debt forgiveness.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, consider using these ideas to understand cycles of interpersonal hurt. Of course people will never stop coming into hurtful conflict with one another. And if we don’t pay close attention, we may allow hurts to compound until we become emotionally enslaved to them. Alternatively, we can choose to make this year an inner sabbatical year to examine hurts, forgiving ours elves and others as much as possible.

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Work of Love (5772/2012)

Love certainly includes a fairy-tale aspect.

No one can really say completely why he or she loves someone. The special ingredient can’t be found in a list of personal qualities or favors done. When you love someone, you perceive them with your heart. A special quality, visible only to your spiritual perception, shines through.

Love also includes what many people call “work.”

The Hebrew word for work is avodah. In ordinary colloquial Hebrew, avodah refers to ordinary work, like cleaning out the garage, building a house, attending meetings – anything you might do as a laborer, professional, or volunteer. But in religious discourse, avodah refers to spiritual work. In Biblical and Temple times, making an offering was called avodah; in Talmudic times, praying was called avodah; in Hassidic times, self-examination and repair was called avodah.

Love involves avodah – spiritual work on self.

Parshat Re’eh offers us, in coded form, some instructions for this kind of work.

Here Moshe presents some challenges the Israelites might face when they enter a new land, and interact with a new culture. How will the Israelites preserve the national spiritual vocabulary and practice that they worked so hard to learn over the last forty years? How will they hold on to these core pieces of spiritual identity as they adopt a new way of life? Torah says:

When God cuts off the nations, and you inherit their land and live in it, don’t fall into the trap of following their ways. Don’t say to yourself, ‘How did they worship God? I’ll do that!’ Because they would even burn their sons and daughters for their gods. If a close friend or relative suggests you follow these ways, don’t agree and don’t listen. Seek, investigate, ask what is best. (from Deuteronomy 12:29-13:15)

Harsh measures – especially when we read them living in a tolerant, peaceful society. We might choose to set them aside until they seem relevant. Or, we might choose to read in a Hassidic style — to interpret these words a bit metaphorically, as teachings about human psychology that are relevant every day we are called to talk about love. From this perspective, Torah says:

When you commit to a relationship, you enter a new landscape. You must displace entire populations of old ideas about how to live and get along with other people. It may not work anymore to ask yourself, “How did I used to organize my time and space?” The old ways may no longer be compatible with your new partner. It may not be helpful to ask yourself, “What styles of speaking kindly worked well with other people I know?” Your new partner will have different sensitivities and needs. Old, familiar ways of living that may have soothed you in the past may now burn those you love. People who have known the old you will offer advice. The advice won’t always be on target, as you re-discover yourself as a partner in the new relationship. You will have to do a great deal of inner work, investigating, analyzing and feeling everything in new ways. A new best you will emerge over time.

Perhaps this work isn’t so far from the fairy tale aspect. What might motivate a person to invest this much psychic energy in spiritual work? Ideally, the spiritual perception that makes love possible, and the intuition that love calls you to change for the better.

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May You See the Festival Light (5772/2012)

Our sages selected Parshat Re’eh for public Torah reading on a Festival Shabbat. On the peshat (simple) level, the reason is obvious. Re’eh describes holiday customs, including social gatherings at the Temple and tzedakah to support people having a difficult season. On a more subtle level, the gematriya of the word re’eh – see – is 206, the same as the gematriya of the word la’moadim – for the festivals.

Parshat Re’eh begins, “Re’eh: See, I have placed before you a blessing and a curse.” As we know from life experience, large family gatherings offer both potentials. But at holiday times, something magical often happens. We see past the chronic fault lines and come together to honor the Torah’s not-so-simple commandment to gather. Re’eh: we see the blessing in one another.

The word la’moadim, for the festivals, appears in the Torah’s creation story. Although God creates light on day one, God waits until the fourth day to create the sun, moon, and stars that give light as we know it. Some commentators suggest that the Divine Light created on Day One was hidden away, seen only by the righteous until the time of Mashiach.

The gematriya connection between Re’eh (see) and la’moadim (for the festivals) suggests another interpretation. The primordial Divine Light is hidden until we perform the essential rituals of a festival: gathering and sharing. Gathering and sharing make it possible for us to see the Divine Light hidden inside every person.

May our lights shine for one another; may they glow from festival to festival.

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A Secure Shabbat (2010/570)

In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Shabbat seems to be the solution to every security issue.

Food security. In Parshat Beshalach, the Israelites complain about having no food. God sends seeds on the ground, which people call man (manna). Each morning they gather only one day’s worth, because the leftovers rot. However, Friday’s leftovers don’t rot, and can be eaten on Shabbat. If you can rest and let go of daily work, one-seventh of the time, you learn: God will provide.

Ecological Security. In Parshat Behar, we glimpse the nation worrying about having enough food without depleting the land. Moshe introduces the law of the Sabbatical year for the land, Shabbat la’aretz. Every seventh year, no mineral-hungry plants are cultivated, and everyone eats whatever grows wild. If you let the land rest one-seventh of the time, God will provide.

Economic Security. In Parshat Re’eh, the nation worries about creating extreme classes of rich and poor. Moshe introduces the law of forgiving debt every seven years. If you can let go of the pursuit of wealth, one-seventh of the time, economic balance will be restored and you will continue to flourish.

Military security. In Haftarat Yom Kippur, taken from the book of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), the Babylonians threaten to attack and destroy the kingdom of Yehudah (Judah).Yirmiyahu says: if everyone in the world will just have Shabbat together for one day, peace and freedom will result. Pause just one-seventh of the time from competitive global and international relations will improve.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Worship: Where, Who and How? (5765/2005)

Parshat Re’eh is the last parashah we read before Rosh Hodesh Ellul – the beginning of the month of Ellul and the four weeks of reflection that precede Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here Moshe seems to offer a model for the one true Jewish style of worship. This model will be questioned, even turned on its head, in the story of the prophet Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur.

Moshe explains that God will choose one single site for worship where all sacrifices must be brought. Animals, however, may be slaughtered and eaten anywhere. In addition, the Israelites must beware of nations with different religious practices, and of questionable prophets.

In the Book of Jonah, we read the story of the prophet Jonah – an Israelite man with a questionable commitment to God. God sends Jonah to preach to Israel’s enemies. Despite Jonah’s reluctance, all who meet him become followers of the Israelite God, and worship wherever they happen to be at the moment. Even their animals put on sackcloth and repent! God explains explicitly to Jonah how valuable each and every person and animal is.

The literary message? Our Tanakh (Bible) offers a variety of religious perspectives. The historical message? Judaism has been practiced many different ways. The spiritual message? As you prepare for the High Holidays, start where you are – every journey towards repentance is valuable.

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