Parshat Re’eh Rosh Chodesh Elul, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, Numbers 28:9-15
The book of Deuteronomy documents Moses’ final address to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. In reiterating the commandments that have been given in the other books of the Torah, Deuteronomy particularly emphasizes the connection of the people and the commandments to that land. The rewards for following the commandments are fertility and plenty; the punishments for disobedience are famine and exile. Our obligation to obey God is rooted both in the gift of freedom from Egyptian slavery and in being delivered into the land God swore to give to our ancestors. Because Canaan is to become our land, there is also an emphasis on destroying the sacred sites of the other occupants so that they will not become a hindrance to our observance of God’s commandments.
Parshat Re’eh offers an interesting perspective on the distinction between Israelite observance and that of the other occupants of the land. In Deuteronomy 12:4, we are warned not to worship God in the manner of the other nations. In verse 5, though, we are told that we should rather focus on “the place where the Lord your God will choose … to establish His name.” The focus on that one site (Jerusalem, although it is not named as such in the Torah) contrasts with the other Israelite shrines that are mentioned in the Bible (Shiloh, for example, in the story of Hannah), and indeed one theory of Biblical scholarship is that Deuteronomy was intended to shore up the hegemony of the priests in Jerusalem over the regional shrines. However, the emphasis on Jerusalem in contrast to the shrines and observances of the other nations suggests something different.
There are certain common ritual elements that transcend individual religions. For example, there are sacred occasions set apart from the everyday. There are rituals that are performed to sanctify our relationship with God (e.g., lighting candles, burning incense and offering sacrifices). We offer prayers as an expression of our aspirations for our world and our place in it. However, the particulars are what separate one religion from another. The other nations have their altars, which we are to eschew in favor of our altar. The other nations have their mourning rituals (gashing the flesh and shaving are specifically mentioned in this parshah); we have different ways of expressing our grief. Other nations have their sacred occasions; we have the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.
The essence of emphasizing the particularity of Jewish modes of worship is that doing so helps to establish a national identity. The commandments enumerated in this parshah, regarding the laws of kashrut, the forgiveness of debts and the freeing of slaves every seven years and so forth, provide a sense of holiness and justice, which both distinguish the Israelites from their neighbors and define a national purpose in bringing God’s word to all peoples. Our distinctiveness and cohesion have been key factors in Jewish survival through more than two thousand years of exile. We must continue to be mindful of the importance of caring for each other so that our internal disagreements do not become divisive and thereby diminish our community.
Rabbi Howard Stein is the spiritual leader of Temple Hadar Israel. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.