Parashat Re’eh begins with a dichotomy: a choice between blessings for following God’s commandments and curses for disobeying. The primary focus of the text is both warnings against following the practices of foreign peoples (and, indeed, injunctions to destroy their sacred sites) and a series of passages describing the proper worship of God. In addition to descriptions of the laws of kashrut and the festival calendar, we are commanded only to bring our offerings to the place God has chosen. Although not named, this site is clearly intended to be the Temple in Jerusalem.
One interesting verse is Deuteronomy 13:1: “Each thing that I command you, this you shall keep and practice; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” Sifrei explains the first part of the verse, emphasizing each individual commandment, as teaching us that an “easy” commandment should be as dear to us as a “hard” one. Something that is easy for us to do should be approached with the same degree of focus and seriousness as something that is difficult.
Sforno comments on the second part of the verse in two ways. We should not add any commandments because the addition could be something repulsive (the example he gives is that of sacrificing one’s children). We should not take away from the commandments because doing so could obscure the reason for that commandment; that is, we must learn the reason for the commandment rather than doing away with it.
These classical sources emphasize the importance of each commandment as a source of meaning for us. This is also a lesson for us as we consider the breadth of what it means to be Jewish today. Certain commandments seem obscure to us, and it is tempting to disregard them entirely. However, we must be mindful of the lessons of history; understanding where we are now and where we are going requires an understanding of where we have come from. Judaism teaches us reverence for our heritage as a key value. There is a value in learning from and wrestling with what seems obscure as much as with what intuitively makes sense to us.
On the other hand, there is sometimes a desire to respond to the surrounding society and shape our Judaism based on this impetus to fit in with our neighbors. While there is certainly value to maintaining good relations with our non-Jewish neighbors, we must view our differences as opportunities to teach and to learn rather than as occasions to homogenize our beliefs and practices. We must be cautious in adding to our practices so that we do not inadvertently disrupt the holistic system of Jewish life.
Judaism has never existed in a vacuum. Our people has always lived in the tension between particularistic separation from and universalist coexistence with the surrounding peoples. Radical changes occurred to Jewish life in the years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In the intervening 2,000 years, carefully considered changes have allowed Judaism to adapt and therefore to survive. This process will continue; indeed, we are seeing significant changes in the landscape of Jewish life today. With reverence for our tradition as well as a willingness to reinterpret that legacy, Judaism will remain a vibrant force for good in our world. pjc
Rabbi Howard Stein is a rabbi at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek in Lima, Ohio. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.