Parashat Re’eh 08.11.18


Parashat Re’eh

D’var Torah: 

Sophie Bigot-Goldblum, Conservative Yeshiva Student & Lishma Fellow

To many, Devarim/Deuteronomy does not appear the most engaging book of the Torah. It is too often reduced to a succession of dry laws whose intricacies seldom resonate in our day and age. But seen another way, the parashah is a thrilling and radical story of a nation being born and acquiring an identity, not through the conquest of a foreign land, but by placing itself in a covenant with a transcendent power. And via this covenant, the divine authority not only commands this nation regarding ritual and other forms of divine service, but also bestows upon them a set of rules regulating interpersonal relationships. Those rules, as we will see, are infused with moral values that constitute a pre-modern code of ethics.

In the very beginning of our parashah we read: “Because you’re crossing the Jordan to come to take possession of the land that Hashem, your God, is giving you; and you should take possession of it and live in it” (Devarim 11:31). What seems at first to be unnecessary phrases and repetitions is actually a deep wisdom that many modern day governments have trouble learning – namely that conquering territory is not the same as holding it, and holding it is not the same as making it a livable home.

But God’s goal for Israel is that we live and flourish in the land. And so, we are commanded not only to destroy, but also to build – to tear down the false idols of idolatry and construct in its place both a Temple AND a model society. And so chapter 15 come to remind us that human possession is not absolute. Every seventh year, the Shmita year, land that is sold – often to pay debts – is returned to its original owner. We can acquire land, but only temporarily; all is eventually reset according to God’s will. Could there be a more potent symbol of the relativity and superficiality of ownership? The not-so-subtle message is that Israel may conquer the land, but it is ultimately God’s – and it is God’s will that justice and equity take precedence over “the market.”  

We see throughout Devarim/Deuteronomy, and Parashat Re’eh in particular, that  power is never absolute – it is coupled with, and limited by, responsibility. God says in 15:6 that Israel will become wealthy, and that wealth will give them power: “When Hashem your God, will have blessed you as He spoke to you; then you’ll lend to many nations but you won’t borrow; and you’ll dominate many nations; but they won’t dominate you.” But lest this power cause Israel to grow arrogant and corrupt, verse 6 is immediately followed by a commandment of compassion in verses 7-8: “When there will be an indigent one among you from one of your brothers within one of your gates in the land that Hashem, your God, has given you, you should not fortify your heart and should not shut your hand from your brother who is indigent. But you should open your hand to him and shall lend him enough for his shortage.”

For a land, a society, to be livable, neither power cannot be dissociated from compassion, nor ownership from justice and equity. Ethics is the foundation on which Israel’s conquest rests, not a choice left to the whims of future rulers. As I read Parashat Re’eh from the land of Israel, I can only hope we learn from our holy Text that our mastery over this land was never an end in itself, but rather that we are commanded to live in it in the highest sense, as a people summoned to open both its heart and its hands.