RE’EH! D’var Torah

RE’EH!(Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17; Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 54:11-55:5)

D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

From what they see on the riverbank, they can also glimpse what the future might hold.

The central theme of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, which is Hebrew for “See,” is God’s gift to us: choice. In today’s political climate, freedom of choice is something we must be vigilant to safeguard. It was equally true in the Torah. This is the choice Moses presents in this parashah as he quotes God saying, “See, I have placed before you blessing and curse. Re’eh, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha oo klalah.”* These are the opening lines of the portion. The implication is for the Israelites to choose between alternative futures.

In the parasha itself, the word, “Re’eh,” is written in the imperative. But it means more than a literal command to “See! Look!” in the everyday, practical sense. It also implies that – as the Israelites stand on the heights of Moab, looking out over the Jordan River they will soon cross to take possession of the land of Canaan – they should believe the evidence of their own eyes.

They should also perceive much more than that. From what they see on the riverbank, they can also draw insight, understanding, a glimpse of what the future might hold. Re’eh is about deciding how you’re going to live and taking action to make that way of life possible. It is similar to another injunction later in Deuteronomy 30:15: “Re’eh, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

So what do the Israelites see? Visualize twin mountain peaks, Mount Gerizim in the south and Mount Ebal in the north, both in the same Ephraim mountain range. In those early biblical days, there was, of course, no television, no social media, no “You Tube’ to present a panoramic view to a large multitude; so instead the Torah presents the textual image of these very real mountains as symbols. Mount Gerizim is located near the biblical Shechem (Nablus in modern times), and it is lush, covered with greenery and fruits, a green zone one might say. The other peak, Mount Ebal, is bleak, steep, and arid. Nothing grows there. The Israelites are instructed to pronounce blessings on green Mount Gerizim and the reverse on bleak Mount Ebal. Traditionally Mount Ebal represents strict justice, severity. How’s that for symbolism? If you were an Israelite overlooking the Jordan River, which route would you choose?

However, the choice is not so easy. Sure, everyone would like to live in the green zone. But making the choice to live there involves choosing a way of life – permanently, for all your generations. The land across the river Jordan is to be sacred, a holy land, and the people who choose to live there, to opt for green Mount Gerizim, must choose to be a holy people, a nation of priests, in fact. That’s the catch. God is to be their only God, and they will have to live by special moral and ethical rules. We have already heard about most of these rules in Leviticus, but of course, Deuteronomy is a recap, a summary of the previous books of the Torah, a looking back. The rules are reiterated here before the people actually move into the land and make it their own. A good deal of what is mentioned anticipates what will actually happen in future years.

Reality check: The land of Canaan is not empty. It is already occupied by pagans who worship other gods and sacrifice their own children by burning them as offerings to their gods. They have disgusting sexual practices, abominable health habits, they treat animals cruelly. And ever since the Golden Calf incident, God is particularly touchy on this issue of idolatry. There are still Israelites who tuck little idols into the corners of their tents. It remained an issue even in later years.

Get rid of the pagans, God commands in the Torah. The land must be purified. Tear down their altars. Destroy their towns. Execute them. There is only one God of Israel.

To our modern ears, this sounds horrific, barbaric. It is important to remember that historically this did not happen. Whole towns were not destroyed because people who worshipped pagan gods lived there. In this parasha, God is using hyperbole intended to warn the Israelites: Evil practices and the people who practice them are to be routed out. The Israelites are exhorted not to be lured by the heathen practices of the Canaanites, nor to be seduced by false prophets who claim to perform supernatural acts, not even by their own relatives who may worship idols. The death penalty is prescribed by anyone who tries to entice others to idolatry.

And if anyone doubts that Jerusalem – “the site that the Lord will choose” – was intended to be a holy city for a holy people, they should read this Torah portion — as well as the haftarah in Isaiah describing the beauty of a Jerusalem set in precious stones, and assuring that the city will be restored to her former glory, and that peace will prevail. All ritual sacrifices would henceforth take place only in Jerusalem, that is, the centralization of ritual sacrifices that actually took place in the reigns of King Hezekiah and, especially, King Josiah, several centuries later. God is giving the Israelites a choice to transform society, to move forward with purpose.

So, with the Israelites still looking across the Jordan River at the land beyond, God says, “If you choose to follow my rules, you will be my chosen people.’’ To be one of these treasured people means that you will take upon yourselves the responsibility to live morally and make ethical choices. It’s not always easy. You can choose or not choose. The hardest part is making the decision. You can listen to what wise people say. But, in the end, it’s up to you.

* “Consequences “(klalah), a word adopted from neo-Syrian vassal treaties, is likely a better English translation for curse.