Parashat Re’eh / פרשת ראה

Parsha Summary for Parshas Reeh

Note: The Shabbos Torah Reading is divided into 7 sections. Each section is called an Aliya [literally: Go up] since for each Aliya, one person “goes up” to make a bracha [blessing] on the Torah Reading.


1st and 2nd Aliyot: Moshe instructs the Chosen People to eradicate any remnant of idolatry and strengthen all aspects of service to G-d. All offerings must be brought to the “Chosen” place, the Bais Hamikdash, so that worship is an act of humility and selflessness, rather than a self-indulging “need”. An even greater danger to our uniqueness is the innate desire to compromise and assimilate Torah values with other forms of worship. (the Chanukah bush syndrome)

3rd and 4th Aliyot: Moshe forewarned the Jews against incorporating any pagan practices, and against the false prophet, idolatrous missionaries, and the Ir Hanidachas – the Apostate City. These must be destroyed along with their material belongings. When using the wo​_rld in accordance with the wishes of the Creator, we declare the existence of a Creator who has a divine purpose for creating the material world. When we misuse the physical in the service of “gods who are not G-d”, we negate the Creator’s purpose for creating the universe. Therefore, they and all their belongings must be destroyed.

5th, 6th, and 7th Aliyot: The remainder of the Parsha, details those Mitzvos that set us apart from all other nations: Kashrus; Maasros – Tithes; the Shmitah – sabbatical year; the laws regarding lending money; the Eved Ivri – a Jew who is a slave; the consecration of the first-born animal, and a review of the main Yomim Tovim – holidays: Pesach, Shavouth, and Succoth.

Rav S.R. Hirsch points out that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not reviewed in Sefer Divarim because there were no changes in the practices of those Yomim Tovim when living in the desert or living in Eretz Yisroel. (Intro. to Divarim)

Parashat Re’eh (פרשת ראה): The Three Pilgrimages…

By Rav. PhilJ Alcide, PhD

Blessing before reading the Torah:   

 

Praise Hashem, to whom our praise is due! Praised be Hashem, to whom our praise is due now and forever! Blessed is Hashem our God, Ruler of the universe, who has chosen us from all peoples by giving us the Torah. Blessed is Hashem, Giver of the Torah.

Reading: “שלוש פעמים ׀ בשנה יראה כל־זכורך את־פני ׀ יהוה אלהיך במקום אשר יבחר בחג המצות ובחג השבעות ובחג הסכות ולא יראה את־פני יהוה ריקם איש כמתנת ידו כברכת יהוה אלהיך אשר נתן־לך”

Transliteration

  • “shalosh pe’anim bashanah yera’eh kal zekhurekha et penei adonai eloheikha bamaqom asher yivchar b’chag hamatzot ub’chag hashavuot ub’chag hasukkot v’lo yera’eh et penei adonai reqam ish kematenat yado k’birkat adonai eloheikha asher natan lakh ” (Devarim 16 : 16-17)

Translation:

  • “Three times a year all your males should appear before Hashem your God in the place that He will choose: on the Festtival of Matzot, on the Festival of Shavuot, and on the Festival of Sukkot. And he shall not appear before Hashem empty-handed, everyone according to what he can give, according to the blessing that Hashem, your God, gives you.” (Deut.16: 16-17)

Blessing after reading the Torah:

Blessed is the Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has given us a Torah of truth, implanting within us eternal life. Blessed is the Lord, Giver of the Torah.

This week’s Parshah covers a lot of material. We would be dizzy if we were to go over them all right now. We would be amazed as well. Yet, I choose to focus on a very small section that will do just as much. Please, accept my apology. Why three times a year? Why only male must appear? Where is the place to appear? Why not empty-handed? These are some of the questions that I will explore with you but before that let us make a b’rachah (say a blessing):

  • Baruch Atah adonai eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam yihyu l’ratson imrei-fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha adonai tsuri v’goali [Amen]
  • Blessed are you Hashem our G-d, king of the universe. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer [Amen]

It is interesting to note that during the forty years that the Israelites lived in the wilderness they were never commanded to appear before Hashem any number of times a day, a week, a month, or a year. However, it is only before they enter the Promised Land that they are reminded to present themselves three times a year “before Hashem” and “at the place He will choose.” This command is known in our circles as “shalosh regalim” or three pilgrimages.

Pilgrimage

What is a pilgrimage? What purpose does it serve? In the Encyclopedia Britannica (2011) we read:

  • “A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for a religious motive. Although some pilgrims have wandered continuously with no fixed destination, pilgrims more commonly seek a specific place that has been sanctified by association with a divinity or other holy personage…Given its presence in so many different cultural and historical contexts, no single meaning can be attributed to the act of pilgrimage. Structural similarities are discernible, however, across disparate traditions of sacred travel. Pilgrimage usually entails some separation (alone or in a group) from the everyday world of home, and pilgrims may mark their new identity by wearing special clothes or abstaining from physical comforts. Frequently, pilgrimages link sacred place with sacred time…Apart from involving movement across physical and cultural landscapes toward a sacred goal, pilgrimages frequently involve ritual movements at the site itself…A factor that unites pilgrimage locations across different religions is the sense, variously expressed, that a given place can provide privileged access to a divine or transcendent sphere…In all religious traditions, hierarchies of sites are evident, as some places are regarded as more sacred than others.”

Why three times a year?

In the book of Joshua we read:

  • “So the men went and passed through the land, and described it by cities in seven divisions in a book, and they came to Joshua to the camp at Shiloh. And Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the LORD, and there Joshua divided the land to the sons of Israel according to their divisions.” (Josh.18: 9-10)

This establishes the Israelites as sedentary people now. They are no longer wandering in the wilderness. In the book of Ecclesiastes we read,

  • “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” (Eccl.4: 12)

The number three here seems to serve at least two purposes in relation to the pilgrimage. The first one is that it is an opportunity for the Israelites to show gratitude to Hashem. The second one is an opportunity to show that they have confidence in Hashem as a partner in the covenant (Exod.34: 24). A third one is to confirm the everlasting character of the covenant through the principle of the three witnesses (Deut.19: 15). Therefore, the three pilgrimages are the eternal witnesses and testimony of what Hashem has done for the Israelites. This is very important to remember.

Why only male must appear?

The ancient Israelites never understood this to exclude women. In fact, in the book of Samuel we read:

  • “There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.” (1 Sam.1: 1-7)

If women were not allowed appear before Hashem, then why did Penninah and Hannah go up with their husband Elkanah? Who was this man anyway? Why didn’t any of his wives ask him to leave the other as the ultimate proof of his love for her? Does the Torah forbid a man to have more than one wife? We must be very careful not to read in the Bible what is not there, things that are informed by anti-Bible biases. Interestingly, the text says:

  • “When her husband Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.” “Do what seems best to you,” her husband Elkanah told her. “Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good his word.” (1 Sam.1: 21-23)

Here, as you can see, Hannah chose not to appear before Hashem simply because she was nursing a newborn child. However, she made clear that she would continue to appear before Hashem when the boy is old enough. Her husband agreed with her. He didn’t tell her that she was not commanded to go. What we understand is that women are exempt from performing certain mitzvot simply because of who they are, which determines the role that they play in the community. Men, on the other hand, do not enjoy the privilege of exemption under any circumstance. Therefore, the omission of women in the text is not due to sexism but to accommodate their exalted status. It is that simple. One must read the text in its context, as a Hebrew would read it in the light of his tradition. Also, men that were ritually unclean could not present themselves before Hashem even if they were commanded to appear.

Where is the place to appear?

Traditionally, the place has always been where the priesthood is quartered. The first place was Shiloh. After that, it became Jerusalem. Should we really focus on a particular place, a physical location? In the time of exile, as right now, and before that during the Babylonian captivity, where is the place? We cannot go to Jerusalem because we do not have a Temple there nor a priesthood. Yet the power of pilgrimage as a metaphor may be retained even in contexts apparently unfavorable to its practice. We must, therefore, understand why Hashem commanded us to appear before Him three times a year. Is there a place that Hashem is not? David, in Psalm 139, answered with a resounding “no”. The point of the pilgrimages then is to bring people together. It is not the physical place that is really the focus but the “unity of people”. Wherever people are united this is where Hashem chooses. This idea is clearly stated in Psalm 133, where it is written:

  • “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” (Ps.133: 1-3)

The Three pilgrimages have one thing in common. They are all “Shabbat days”. In other words, they are set apart for a particular purpose. The place is “in time” because it is time that Hashem “made holy”. Man made a place holy. Which is greater: what G-d sanctifies or what man sanctifies? A place can be destroyed but time cannot be destroyed. We will always have the opportunity to appear before Hashem as long as we are alive. Let us briefly look at each pilgrimage:

Pesach or Passover began and remains a family holiday. It symbolizes in words and deeds the ideal of freedom (Gen.1: 26-27). It is associated with the Exodus from Egypt. On this holiday we are commanded not to eat yeast. The sages taught:

  • “Leaven represents the evil impulse of the heart” (Talmud, Berachot 17a)

Pesach, therefore, teaches us to subdue our appetite and control what we eat.

Shavuot or “feast of weeks” is traditionally known by many names each of which reflects the agricultural nature of the holiday celebrated in the Spring. The Bible nowhere associates the holiday of Shavuot with G-d’s revelation on Mount Sinai. The Talmud (Pesachim 68b), however, does make an association between the two. The connection was established when scholars, following the biblical account, calculated that the dates of the agricultural festival of Shavuot and the event at Mount Sinai coincided. In this Parshah, the reason for the observance of Shavuot is that “we were once slaves in Egypt”.

Sukkot or “feast of booths” was originally an agricultural holiday. We are told to remember that the Israelites people lived in booths when G-d took them out of Egypt. It marks the beginning of the rainy season. Therefore, it became known as a Day of Judgment for Rain.

Why not empty-handed? 

All three pilgrimages refer to the Exodus from Egypt, which is G-d’s greatest act of love to the Israelites. G-d gives because He loves. Therefore, we must demonstrate our love by giving back. This is the law. Therefore, Solomon taught:

  • “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of your crops.” (Prov.3: 9)

The three pilgrimages give us a framework to test our own obedience and gratitude. They provide us with an opportunity for spiritual growth. They invite us to take journeys without leaving our physical place. We are to go into the depth of our soul each time to meet with our G-d. Also, the pilgrimages provide us with opportunities for redemption. What are we to be redeemed from? Our sages, by linking Chametz (yeast) to the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), teach us that we are to be redeemed from our evil inclination, the Yetzer Hara. Who can redeem us and how? G-d answers, saying:

  • “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen.4: 7)

G-d has already provided for us in all aspects of our lives. He gives us opportunities to prove ourselves worthy. He gives us the Torah, a Covenant of Peace, a Pact of Friendship. Now it is up to us to show Him how much we love him. Notice that out of 365 days we are only commanded to make three pilgrimages. The rest of the year concerns our treatment of others. We cannot present ourselves before G-d favorably if we neglect our neighbor or oppress them in any way. We are different and receive differently from G-d. Therefore, we cannot look at what others give to G-d when we want to present gifts to Him. How good has G-d been to you? How much has He given you? How much does he ask you to give Him?

Shabbat Shalom,

Reference

pilgrimage. (2011). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.

Parashat Chukat / פרשת חקת

Note: The Shabbos Torah Reading is divided into 7 sections. Each section is called an Aliya [literally: Go up] since for each Aliya, one person “goes up” to make a bracha [blessing] on the Torah Reading.

1st Aliya: The laws of the Parah Adumah- the Red Heifer, are detailed.

 2nd Aliya: In Nissan of the 40th year, Miriam died. The well dried up and the nation gathered against Moshe and Aharon to complain. 

3rd Aliya: The “hitting of the rock” occurred and Moshe and Aharon were refused entry into Eretz Yisroel. 

4th Aliya: Moshe requested from Edom permission to travel through their land on the way to Eretz Yisroel. Edom refused. 

5th Aliya: Aharon died and Elazar succeeded his father as Kohain Gadol. They encountered the southern Canaanites (13 miles west of the Dead Sea) and bested them in battle. Following Aharon’s death, the protective clouds departed and the nation began to complain about the living conditions. Hashem sent poisonous snakes to attack the nation and Moshe was instructed to create the “copper snake on a stick” o miraculously save the bitten. 

6th & 7th Aliya: The nation traveled to Yeshimon – northeast of the Dead Sea. In the conclusion of Chukas, the nation was refused access to the lands of Sichon and Og and Moshe led them into victorious battle against them. 


Haftorah Rosh Chodesh 

This week’s Haftorah is from Yishayah Chap. 66 and reflects the fact that today is also Rosh Chodesh. Yishayah describes the ultimate downfall of all our enemies during the war of Gog and Magog. The Navi explains that this world is the manifestation of g-d’s presence and glory. Yet, we are incapable and sometimes unwilling to properly recognize G-d’s manifest presence. Even when the Bais Hamikdash stood the Bnai Yisroel did not appreciate their opportunity to be close to G-d and serve Him. The Navi forewarns that insincere expressions of devotion are tantamount to offering blemished sacrifices and G-d will punish those who lack sincerity and devotion. 

Nevertheless, the institution of the Bais Hamikdash and prayer are our only means for communication love and devotion. Therefore, those who truly mourn for the absence of the Bais Hamikdash and the Temple services will also merit to rejoice in her redemption and reconstruction. When the Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt the nation will again be able to witness the Rosh Chodesh offering and service, and fully participate in expressing their commitment

Parashat Mishpatim / פרשת משפטים

There is a strange—little spoken about—law that my mind, particularly over the last few months, keeps re-visiting. The Talmud teaches that when one builds a synagogue or house of study the structure should preferably have windows (BT Berakhot 34b). Indeed, this idea is codified as law in the foundational legal code, the Shulhan Arukh (OH 90:2).

The medieval commentaries offer differing reasons for this law. Rashi suggests that the windows expose the sky, drawing our eyes to the heavens; allowing our gaze to be drawn upwards creates the proper humility as we try to relate to the Transcendent. Rabbenu Yonah writes that letting light into a dark space calms the soul and allows one to be more settled and arrive at the appropriate mindset for prayer (see Beit Yosef, O.H. 90:4). For me, windows in the academy and in houses of prayer have always been a precious and needed form of agitation. The light captures my attention and draws me into the world, into the streets. The windows are a reminder that the religious experience I pursue as I try to connect with God through prayer and the study of holy texts must reach beyond the ecclesiastical walls. Judaism demands that there always be a creative dialectic between the world and the beit midrash. For Torah to realize its promise and be all that it is meant to be for the world, its teachings must reverberate in the markets and the streets, in the halls of government and in our homes.

A version of this point is made by the juxtaposition between last week’s parashah of Yitro and this week’s reading of Mishpatim. Last Shabbat, we read about how the Israelites, after three days of preparation, confronted God’s awesome presence at Sinai through a thick cloud. With Parashat Yitro, the people touch lofty heights. Sinai represents a moment of intimacy between the Israelites and their Redeemer. As we move from Yitro to Mishpatim, we might have expected an elaboration of ritual laws that would govern the people’s particular relationship with the Divine. We might have imagined an introduction of the ritual laws of tefillin or tzitzit, Shabbat, festivals or kashrut—laws that give expression to the particularity of the Divine relationship with the Jewish people.

But the first laws that are expounded after this intense and intimate religious moment are the laws detailing behavior among people generally. The first laws of the Covenant given immediately after Sinai are about the rights of servants, the commands not to oppress the stranger, not to mistreat the widow and the orphan, not to speak false rumors about people. We are introduced to the laws governing physical damages, property law, and a vision of how best to adjudicate judgment. That is to say, these are laws that form the basis of our interactions with other human beings (bein adam lehavero). None of these laws are seemingly particular to the Jewish people’s relationship with their God, but rather offer universal moral direction on how to create a just and ethical society.

The meaning behind the juxtaposition between this two parshiyot of Yitro and Mishpatim is echoed in the Ten Commandments themselves. On the first tablet, we find commands that govern our relationship with the Divine. On the second tablet, we have commands that govern our interactions with human beings.

Our reading this Shabbat of Mishpatim—and its almost total focus on the laws that must govern interactions between people—serves as an important corrective to the dangers that inhere in the religious experience. Too often the focus of religious life becomes self-centered, the practitioner prioritizing her individual spiritual world and relationship with God to the exclusion of others and their wellbeing. This inward-looking focus reifies a religiosity in which the pursuit of closeness to God comes to distance us from God’s world. This is not how it should be, the Torah warns. Sinai was a one-time experience, an encounter that must not serve as a paradigm for intimacy with the Divine. Moving forward, the people are implicitly told that their relationship with God is developed and deepened as much through the pursuit of justice between human beings (bein adam lehavero) as it is through ritual behavior (bein adam lamakom). The Talmud has its own language for this idea. “Rav Yehudah said, ‘One who wishes to be devout (hasid) should fulfill the words of the laws of damages’” (BT Bava Kama 30a). One’s relationship with God is deepened when the love of God manifests itself not only in sacrifices or prayers but in also heeding the laws that govern relationships between people. Both in its biblical and Talmudic iterations, the power of the Torah is that it expands the religious life to include civil law and the pursuit of justice generally.

In fact, Rashi makes this point in a gorgeous way in his first comment on Exodus 21. He tells us that the Sanhedrin, the great court of the ancient Jewish people, had to be located in the Temple. This placement should serve as a reminder that the court that heard monetary claims and other civil litigation between people must understand its work of adjudication as a religious activity. Just as the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple constituted a form of worship, so too was the work of the court an expression of Divine service (avodah).

Looking out the windows these days we must be careful not to let ourselves become overwhelmed by the dissonance between what the Torah hopes for the world and the world as it currently is. It would be too easy and so wrong to retreat into the beit midrash and into our prayers. Mishpatim pushes us past this response, reminding us that we are not to stay at Sinai, but instead must move into the enterprise of building a just society. Mishpatim reminds us that this work is essential to the religious life.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).