By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant The translation of this week’s Torah Parsha (CHAYEI SARAH) is ‘The Life of Sarah’. Ironically, only the first two lines of the Parsha pertain...
“See, I am setting before you today the blessing and the curse: the blessing if you obey the commandments of the LORD your GOD, which I am giving to you today; the curse if you disobey the commandments of the LORD your GOD” (1).
These are the first words of Moses’ monologue to the Children of Israel, in this week’s Parsha (RE’EH).
In effect, Moses is defining ‘reality’ for this generation; and, for all future generations. He is doing so, as a preface to what is about to follow; specifically, a systematic restatement of Jewish law, which includes all aspects of life for the new nation.
Unlike the several Parshiot in the Book of DEUTERONOMY, which preceded Parsha (RE’EH), there is no mention of the sins, which were committed by the Israelites, during their forty years of dwelling in the desert. Instead, there is no singular theme in this week’s Parsha. Absent any cohesiveness, the various chapters discuss: rituals of mourning; kosher and non-kosher foods; charity; idolatry; tithes (taxes); and, other disparate commandments. Most of these subjects are repetitions of commandments, which we have read before, particularly in the Book of Leviticus. Nevertheless, Parsha (RE’EH) does include some new revelations.
“If your brother, your son or daughter, your wife, or your friend, attempts to entice you to go and worship gods of others – -you shall not accede to him; your eyes shall not take pity on him; you shall not be compassionate, nor conceal him…rather you shall surely kill him” (2). The Torah outlines the laws pertaining to the ‘meisit’, a person who tries to convince his fellow Jews to turn to idol worship. This sin is considered to be the most heinous and evil of any act which could be perpetrated.
God knows that the surrounding nations, who worship multiple gods, are ruled by kings, dictators, and autocrats. Their populations are numerous; and, the people pay taxes solely at the whim of the rulers, to augment their wealth and power. There are no laws of justice; and, an individual and his family could be killed, merely by the caprice of the royalty. God believed that, just by their religion, a Jewish person would never survive in this environment. In Judaism, we believe in the ‘rules of law’, not men.
Another striking element of Parsha (RE’EH) relates to ‘tzedakah’ (charity). “If there is a poor man among your brothers, in any of the towns that the LORD your GOD is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother. Rather, be open-handed and freely give him what is sufficient for his needs, in that which he lacks” (3).
In a famous passage, Maimonides describes eight levels of charity, each greater than the next (4). The highest level is to support a fellow Jew, by either entering into a partnership; or, helping him find employment, until he is no longer dependent on others. The lowest level is one who gives; but unwillingly.
Biblical Israel is the first example in history of an attempt to create a free society. “The government of the Israelites was a Federation, held together by no political authority, but by the unity of a faith, based on nothing but a voluntary covenant. The people recognized no lawgiver, but God. Thus, the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won” (5).
(1) DEUTERONOMY (11:26-28)
(2) DEUTERONOMY (13:7-10)
(3) DEUTERONOMY (15:7-11)
(4) Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity (10:7-14)
(5) “Essays in the History of Liberty”, Lord Acton (Liberty Classics)