Rabbi Danny Rich, 2 September 2016
Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) continues Moses’ long final speech to the Israelites as he prepares for his own death and the children of Israel get ready to enter Canaan, the Promised Land from which he himself is excluded.
Moses reviews the recent history of Israel, beginning with slavery in Egypt continuing to the Exodus and the escape from physical oppression, their desert wandering, the revelation of the Torah (or at least the Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai which herald a (re)building of the relationship with the God of the Hebrew ancestors.
Moses seeks to explain Divine expectations and to create a theology and structure for a way of life which will assist them with a successful conquest and a prolonged occupation of the Land.
Amongst the details of Re’eh, are a review of the three Pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, a reiteration of various cultic regulations concerning tithes and sacrifices and a description of the permitted and forbidden animals which humans may consume.
Of more ethical relevance, Re’eh demonstrates a concern for health and, in providing details of the sabbatical year, a care for the economic vulnerable whether slave, widow, orphan, stranger or simply poor.
Re’eh takes its name from its opening word: Re’eh anochi notain lifnaychem hayom brachahooklalah (See, I am setting before you today blessing and curse). This crucial idea of choice could in itself be the subject of the rest of this article but suffice to say, it is assumed that the Children of Israel will choose life over death, and it is further understood that humanity has the possibility of opting for blessing over curse in the face of overwhelming Divine power.
It is, of course, arguable that not only this parashah but indeed the whole of the Book of Deuteronomy or even Torah and the panoply of Jewish existence is an attempt to understand the nature of the bond or covenant between God and Israel, particularly its parameters.
Parashat Re’eh contains, in my view, one of the most fascinating phrases in Torah whereby Israel is described as ‘am segulah’ (a treasured people). Appearing in Deuteronomy 14:2, this is neither its first or last Biblical appearance. It first appears in Exodus 19:5, makes three appearances in Deuteronomy, is utilised by the prophet Malachi (3:17) and is found in Psalm 135.
In each appearance the term am segulah seems to convey a sense that God has chosen Israel as a treasured or particular possession and there is little sense that the Jewish people had any say in the matter.
Early rabbinic commentary understands the term as portraying a mysterious and eternal Divine favour which is not bestowed upon Israel on account of its power, size or even merit. Medieval and later scholars debate whether the concept is an exclusive one and the extent to which it is reflected in Jewish history and/or destiny. Many modern commentators, notably Mordechai Kaplan the founder of the American Reconstructionist Movement, struggle with the term showing a range of feelings from ambivalence to total rejection believing there is no place for an elevated Jewish status in a multi-faith world.
It is not unknown for the Jew to resort to humour in the face of mystery and the midrashists were no exception. The challenge of how and why God and Israel become entangled in relationship is reflected in two stories. The first picks up on the particular ordering of words in the Exodus 24:7 phrase; ‘na’aseh v’nishmah’ (we will do and we will hear). A number of midrashim picture a rather exasperated God hawking around the Ten Commandments. God goes first to the descendants of Esau who can only accept nine but not ‘Do Not Murder’ because, of them it was said, ‘By your sword you shall live’ (Genesis 27:40). Next the Ten Commandments are offered to the descendants of Lot who cannot live with ‘Do Not Commit Adultery’ because they are products of Lot’s adultery with his daughters (Genesis 19:36). Next God approaches the Ishmaelites who reject ‘Do Not Steal’ because their destiny to live off stolen goods was heralded in Genesis 16:12. The Rabbis suggest that God went to each of the known 70 nations, all of whom had a reason not to keep one of the Ten Commandments until a desperate, all but defeated, God alighted on Israel which, not reading the small print, declared ‘na’aseh v’nishah’.
The second legend centres on the story of the Israelites waiting for Moses to return from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Utilising a possible dual meaning of the Hebrew ‘tachat‘ which can mean the Israelites camped both ‘by the side’ of Mt Sinai or ‘under’ Mt Sinai, the Giving of the Ten Commandments is portrayed as God suspending Mt Sinai above the Children of Israel and pleading or threatening; ‘Be my treasured people and accept the Torah or the mountain drops!’. With a rabbinic sense of humour the midrashists are reminding their readers that a special or treasured relationship is also about risk and challenge.
Of all the complex messages which make up Moses last address to the Israelites perhaps this is the most important: relationship and task always contain an element of risk and challenge.
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