The Torah portion we read this week, Re’eh, opens with God setting before the people both “blessing and curse;” the one we receive is based on how we respond to God’s commandments.
How then to merit blessings? One means is by heeding Re’eh’s emphasis on a need to establish boundaries between ourselves and others. One point of emphasis in particular distinguishes Jews from all other peoples, Re’eh offers, namely the significance assigned to specific places.
On numerous occasions in this week’s portion, we find variations of the phrase “hamakom asher yivchar Adonai Elohecha,” referencing “the place God will choose.” While the explicit name for this “place” of God’s choosing is not provided here, traditional Jewish commentators and modern scholars alike identify “the place” as Jerusalem. It is widely accepted that repeatedly referencing Jerusalem in this way is to stress the importance of centralizing religious life in one place. But why?
Biblical scholars teach that repeating God’s insistence on the centrality of Jerusalem helped earlier generations to forget their long-held associations with the city (namely as the home of Canaanite gods) while at the same time reinforcing the significance of God’s decision to identify holiness with a particular locale. Heretofore, when God made known the divine will, it was through theophany, wherein God appears in human experience.
A typical example of theophany is that which transpired at the Burning Bush or atop Mount Sinai. Experiences such as these caused the ancients to ascribe meaning to specific places wherein they had encountered God.
But Jerusalem is different in kind. With this holiest of cities, the Torah does not describe God as alighting upon it nor even as appearing within its walls. Rather, where Jerusalem is concerned, theophany is all but replaced with rhetorical repetition stressing the significance of “the place God will choose,” coupled with the added dimension of pilgrimage. God identifies Jerusalem as “the place,” but it is we who assign Jerusalem her true meaning; and this we do by heeding the Torah’s repeated claim as to its divine selection and then taking ourselves there.
Parshat Re’eh conveys its message as to that which unites a community through rhetorical repetition. Whatever the literary device, however, our attention is drawn, but ultimately it is we who must decide whether to pay attention. Re’eh opens and concludes with the words: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.”
Will we recognize the significance of all Jerusalem represents to us as a people? Are we willing to accept the role each of us plays in determining what is most meaningful to us as a community? When might we choose to focus on that which we share in common? The time to choose blessings is now.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)