I thought I would begin by acknowledging the 900-pound gorilla in the room by pointing out that this week’s portion, Re’eh, is filled with so many incredibly important and well-known commandments that I was, at first, slightly daunted by the spiritual and secular weight this portion carries for our lives. This Shabbat evening, I hope to share with you just a small part of what I think is beautiful about this portion, especially now, when we are in between the seasons and a new Jewish year lies just ahead.
Re’eh teaches that it is a combination of personal ritual and wider social consciousness that will lead the Israelites on a path towards holiness. God first presents the Jews with a choice, commanding them with the words: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”. In other words, God affirms the Israelites’ freedom to choose either to obey or to disobey the laws God decrees. Re’eh, which translates as “See,” is thus, in a way, the very first commandment in the portion, and remains a constant reminder throughout that a state of holiness is not only a result of God-decreed ritual but is also a mindset – a choice from within ourselves.
That is not to say that there is any shortage of rules to which the Israelites must adhere. Later in the portion, God commands that the Israelites follow the kosher laws and grant their slaves freedom after six years of service. God also commands the Israelites to remit debts owed to them every seven years and to periodically leave a portion of their yield on their land so that the needy and the stranger in their midst can eat. Thus, in these few pages, God gives us personal rituals and a more general ethical code with the ultimate result of enabling us to instill purity on several levels – in our bodies, in our homes, and in our communities.
As I said earlier, this portion could not fall at a better time. Between end-of-summer vacations and back-to-school shopping, August is a very busy month – and a very expensive one, too. I was interested to see how often Re’eh addresses money matters with the dynamic between personal doctrine and humanitarian concerns. By the same token, I was equally surprised at the relevance of God’s financial advice to modern-day economics. God says to the Israelites, “You will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself,” a piece of advice which certainly applies, or should apply, not only to our personal practices, but also to current events in our national and global economies. When it comes to money, however, God also advises the Israelites to “wrap up” their money before they spend it, which, according to one commentator, is meant to suggest that we must choose to rule over our money, and not have it rule over us.
It is with this in mind that I would like to explore the portion’s emphasis on charity as an individual and community-wide requirement for attaining holiness. God’s commandment in Re’eh is that we periodically leave a portion of our harvest for the needy, an act of tzedakah and organized social justice that got me wondering: How charitable are Americans? I read an article in Forbes from 2008 that claimed that Americans give more to charity than the citizens of any other nation. Most of the article sought to figure out why this was, and one line in particular caught my attention. It seems that while our wealthiest citizens give the most in dollar amounts at any given time, it is, in fact, low-income Americans who tend to give the highest portion of their income to charity. That we live in such a culture of giving, particularly among those who have the lowest income, is a testament to the choice God presents to us in Re’eh – that the act of giving is also a mindset that we, all of us, must choose in order to purify both ourselves and our communities.
As a final note, I want to mention one aspect of Re’eh that I found very unusual, but which I now understand to be an important foundation for the path to holiness prescribed in the Torah. When God commands the Israelites to give – whether it is by donating food or granting freedom to a slave – God always adds that they should “have no regrets” and “not feel aggrieved” by what they are losing. I was struck, at first, that God is here commanding not only our physical act of giving, but also our instinctive and emotional reactions to giving.
I now see, however, that it all comes back to the freedom God gave us by allowing us to choose between blessing and curse. Our responsibility is, as ever, to the purification of the community, but it is also to the purification of our minds and hearts. Between the personal ritual and the social action, in order for us to walk the path to holiness, it must be the joy we feel in performing the mitzvah that is, ultimately, the holiest gift of all.
Something, I think, that we all need to keep in mind as we approach the season of our High Holy Days and the opportunity for atonement and renewal that God offers us.