A Brief Note on First Principles – Parsha Re’eh

Parsha Re’eh records a series of discrete lessons. There is no overt relationship amongst the fifty-five laws promulgated in the text. Some are esoteric in nature while others, such as the laws of Kashrut and Shemmitah, remain active. The laws of Shemmitah, first recorded in Parsha Mishpatim and Parsha Behar, are augmented by a law mandating debt remission in the seventh year. Another progressive law ordered a second tithe that was not dedicated to God, the Priests and the Levites, rather, were to be distributed to the poor. The protection of the needy, “the proselyte, the orphan and the widow” is a recurring theme of the Torah, and the fundamental values  it represented found continued expression in the promulgation of many early laws that encouraged moral and ethical behavioural norms.

The word tzedakah is derived from the same root as tzedek which can mean righteousness, justice or fairness. How you perform tzedakah is important. The Rambam described the “levels” of giving in eight ascending categories. Certain ways of fulfilling tzedakah were considered more meritorious than others. Public tzedakah was an early and important part of Jewish communal life. Sometimes these funds were voluntarily given by townspeople, often during communal prayers or for annual ongoing fund raising campaigns. An early initiative, which still is practiced today, is the Maot Chittin campaign, which takes place between Purim and Passover to ensure the Jewish underclass Jews would have a festive Seder.  This original food drive, first mentioned over a century ago has broadened its scope and mandate through the organization of Food Banks, such asMazon. Today, tzedakah has been reinvented and invigorated as another successful modern Jewish enterprise, providing aid as diverse as free loans, women’s shelters and medical and educational institutions. 

The Children of Israel are again warned about “foreign influences”, specifically idol worship. In Parsha Re’eh, Moses again tells the Israelites how they should destroy and erase idolatry from the Land of Israel. They are to tear down the altars and smash the pillars of all places where the repugnant regime is practiced. They are warned “to beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out”. Moses repeats God’s hate of the heathen rites: “…they perform for their god’s every abhorrent act that God detests: they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods”.  . The Children of Israel were also commanded to change the place names that marked the Canaanites’ shrines, so that their memory would be forever lost. Ironically, that is what the Romans did to Judea after the fall of Jerusalem and the failed revolt of Bar Kochba. In fact, history demonstrates many example of the victor vanquishing not only the foe, but any evidence of the foe. 

Unfortunately, the Israelites seemed determined not to erase any evidence of the former cultures from the land. Nor, did the Israelites take measures to guard against such places and such practices from rising up in their midst. The early rule of the Israelites is marked not by the perils of foreign domination and entanglements, which were the hallmark of the Second Templeperiod, but by the continuing corrupting influence of idolatry and the ease that the people could turn to the worship of other gods. Even the revered King Solomon was guilty of such noxious practices: The Book of Kings describes how King Solomon allowed pagan worship to take root in his kingdom, and even constructed altars and temple for the worship of strange gods:”Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestable idol of the sons of Ammon.”  It is only during the Second Temple period that idols and pagan practices began to die out, only to be replaced by a force considered much more insidious – Hellenism and the war of ideas and culture – a battle that is still being waged.

Judaism has always been affected by religious sectarianism, much of which has to do with the definition of what constitutes foreign influences. In spite of these doctrinal differences, their teachings have remained grounded on certain common principles, notably tzedakah. The protection of the underclass, the building and maintenance of communal institutions and the building of institutions for the benefit of the community are testaments to the morals and ethics first mentioned in the Torah. These tenets have been inculcated by centuries of Jewish thought and wisdom and are a source of our peoples’ strength and fortitude.

This entry was posted in 2014, Deuteronomy/Devarim, Re'eh. Bookmark the permalink.

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