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D'var Torah: Parshat Re'eh

08/08/2018 01:56:54 PM


Lori Nichols

The book of Deuteronomy gives us 3 sermons by Moses to the people of Israel, restating God’s commands originally given to the Israelites some forty years earlier in Exodus and Leviticus. This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re'eh, is from the 2nd of those sermons and begins with the classic statement, "See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse" - a blessing if the people obey God's commandments and a curse if they choose to disobey. Moses’s warning is that “If you follow God’s laws, you will be blessed more than all the peoples of the earth. However, if you worship false idols and ignore the other commandments, then you shall be cursed and perish."  As part of this sermon Moses instructs the people of Israel on worshiping in a central place (12:1–28); and explains the laws against idolatry and self mutilation (12:29–13:19)(14:1–2); He discusses the kosher dietary rules (14:3–21); laws about tithes (14:22–25), debt remission (15:1–11), the release and treatment of Hebrew slaves (15:12–18), and firstlings (15:19–23). He also details the 3 pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

It is interesting that instead of beginning with the word "sh'ma" or "listen," as one might expect at the beginning of a set of instructions, this parasha begins with the word "re'eh," or "see."  We must "see" for ourselves a world with or without the blessings. God, of course, urges us to choose obedience and therefore the blessing.  We see the words love and joy show up in Deuteronomy…again, maybe not what you would expect throughout a list of instructions.  The word “love” (the root a-h-v) appears twice in Exodus, twice in Leviticus, not all in Numbers, but 23 times in Deuteronomy. The word “joy” (root s-m-ch) appears only once in Genesis, once in Exodus, once in Leviticus, once in Numbers but twelve times in Deuteronomy. Let’s be clear though…Moses does not hide the fact that life under the covenant will be demanding. But perhaps neither love nor joy come on a social scale without codes of self-restraint and commitment to the common good.

In Dr. Wolfson’s book, Relational Judaism, he writes that “those who embrace the covenantal relationship discover how to live a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.  Covenants also form the foundation of “community.” As someone who converted to Judaism more than a dozen years ago, I reflect back and realize that nobody told me, asked me or coerced me to become a Jew.  Likewise, nobody gave me the rules and said “if you can handle these, we’ll let you in.”  I have just always been drawn to it – from as far back as middle school when I would tag along with my friends to Hebrew school or Shabbat dinners.  I wouldn’t have known how to put it into words before, but it was something that I SAW in how they lived their lives.  There was an abundance of love and joy in their synagogues and in their homes and I guess I always felt blessed that they were willing to share this with me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of questions regarding the do’s and don’ts of Judaism.  I don’t typically do well with the response of “well, that’s just how it’s always been done” but I do realize that some of my questions have more to do with Jewish customs than actual Jewish laws and sometimes there just isn’t a clear cut answer that will satisfy me in that moment.  But I do appreciate it when someone can point me to the text to show me where and how a commandment was written, and in what context – so maybe it wasn’t just a coincidence that I have this week’s portion from which to write a d’var torah.

As you can imagine, my husband just LOVES it when I ask him to explain the historical context for everything Jewish.  I realize that I chose this path as an adult and shouldn’t be too hard on myself for not having all the answers, even when my kids ask me to explain things like the dietary laws.  One day I asked my husband how is it that he is so much better at following some of the rules than I am.  Very simply, my husband said “By living according to Jewish laws and customs, I feel more connected to Jews all over the world. And I want to model this for our children.”  

Wow – I found that to be a pretty simple and powerful statement.  And it speaks to the global community that Dr. Wolfson also talks about in his book.  To me, his response says a lot more about his Jewish path, his blessings, his love and his joy than anything else. It gives me insight into his Jewish identity and his relationship with G-d.  Dr. Wolfson makes the distinction between Jewish identification being the things that I might do to express my Judaism and internal Jewish identity as being shaped by the relationships in my life. While I definitely think that one impacts the other, what resonates with me personally is that Jewish laws have more to do with my relationship with G-d – than they are about how to “do Jewish”.    

I know that my work with the Board also allows me to see a path – ways in which we can share our spirituality, fellowship, love and joy in our community.  This notion of seeing the path (rather than having it merely explained to us) is what Dr. Wolfson speaks to in his book when he wrote, “Some people, many people, don’t know what they want in a Jewish institution until you show it them.” I know that we all see something beautiful in Har HaShem’s future.  If we can see the joy in something, we can deepen our relationship with it.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century writer and philosopher once said, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting.”   

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyar 5784