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Thursday, August 28, 2008
Haftara: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5
Reading Date: 30th August 2008 – 29th Av 5768
"See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse."
Thus opens our parasha, the Torah reading of Re'eh ("See"). The blessing, Moses proceeds to explain, shall come about "because you will heed the commandments of YHVH your G-d that I command you today. And the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of YHVH your G-d, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods that you did not know."
Upon their entry into the Holy Land, the people of Israel are instructed to proclaim the blessing on Mount Gerizim, and the curse on the nearby Mount Ebal. This pair of mountains, Moses directs, are "on the other side of the Jordan, way beyond in the direction of the sunset, in the land of the Canaanites, who dwell in the plain, opposite Gilgal, near the plains of Moreh."
Get Rid of the Idols, Build a Home for YHVH
Upon their entry into the Land, the Israelites are instructed to "utterly destroy from all the places where the nations that you shall possess worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree."
And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim (idolatrous trees) with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.
You shall not do so to YHVH, your G-d.
But only to the place which YHVH your G-d shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.
And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.
And there you shall eat before YHVH, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as YHVH has blessed you.
"Meat of Desire"
Throughout their 40 years in the desert, the people had been instructed on the various offerings that were brought in the Sanctuary, the meat of which was eaten -- under special conditions of sanctity -- by the person making the offering, and/or the Cohen ("priest"). Now Moses introduces a new dietary concept -- meat eaten as part of an ordinary meal rather than as an extension of the Temple service.
When YHVH, your G-d, expands your boundary, as He has promised you, and you say, "I will eat meat," because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul.
If the place YHVH chooses to put His Name there will be distant from you, you may slaughter of your cattle and of your sheep, which YHVH has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities, according to every desire of your soul.
This meat needn't be eaten under conditions of ritual purity (taharah), as is the case with the meat of the offerings -- rather, "the impure and the pure may be eaten together." The only legal restrictions are that the animal be kosher (as specified further on in our parasha), that it be slaughtered "as I have commanded you" (i.e., in accordance with the laws of shechitah), and
You must be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul; and you shall not eat the soul with the flesh.
The False Prophet, the Inciter, and the Idolatrous City
If there will arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of a dream, and he gives you a sign or a wonder. And the sign or the wonder of which he spoke to you happens, [and he] says, "Let us go after other gods which you have not known, and let us worship them." You shall not heed the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream; for YHVH your G-d is testing you, to know whether you really love YHVH your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul.
You shall follow YHVH, your G-d, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him, and cleave to Him. And that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream shall be put to death; because he spoke falsehood about YHVH your G-d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and Who redeemed you from the house of bondage, to lead you astray from the way in which YHVH, your G-d, commanded you to go; so shall you eradicate the evil from your midst.
Nor should any compassion be shown toward the inciter who attempts to lead others to worship idols. And if an entire city falls prey to idolatry, the city should be utterly destroyed.
"You are children of YHVH your G-d," says Moses to the people. "You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes [in mourning] for the dead.
"For you are a holy people to YHVH your G-d, and YHVH has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth."
The Kosher Laws
You shall not eat any abomination.
These are the animals that you may eat: ox, lamb, and kid; gazelle, deer, and antelope, ibex, chamois, bison, and giraffe. And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat.
Both kosher signs are necessary in order for the animal to be permissible for consumption. "The camel, the hyrax, and the hare," which chew the cud but do not have split hooves, are forbidden, as is the swine, which has split hooves but does not chew the cud.
These you may eat of all that are in the waters: all that have fins and scales, you may eat. But whatever does not have fins and scales, you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.
In respect to fowl, the Torah does not give kosher signs, but rather lists twenty-one species of non-kosher birds to be excluded from our diet.
Every flying insect is unclean for you
You shall not eat any carcass (i.e., an animal not killed in accordance with the special slaughtering procedures and laws of "shechitah"). You may give it to the stranger who is in your cities, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to YHVH your G-d.
You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk. (i.e., the prohibition against mixing milk with meat).
Tithes and Suspensions
A tenth part of all crops should be taken to the holy city Jerusalem and eaten "before YHVH your G-d."
And if the way be too long for you, that you are unable to carry it, for the place which YHVH your G-d will choose to establish His Name therein is too far from you...
Then you shall turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place YHVH your G-d will choose.
There the money can be turned back into "whatever your soul desires" -- "cattle, sheep, new wine or old wine... and you shall eat there before YHVH, and you shall rejoice, you and your household" -- remembering to invite also the Levite "for he has neither portion nor inheritance with you."
Every seventh year is shemitah, during which all work in fields ceases, and all debts are suspended. Though these laws seem to pose financial hardship to the Jew, G-d promises that, "there will be no needy among you... if you hearken to the voice of YHVH your G-d, to be careful to do all this commandment, which I am commanding you today... you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you."
If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities... you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother.
Rather, open, open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking...
You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this thing YHVH will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors.
Our parasha concludes with the laws requiring the giving of a gift to a freed servant, the offering of firstborn animals to YHVH, and the three pilgrimage festivals -- Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
I would like to include some interesting traditional thought on Torah and charity
What is the deeper significance of this law?
The student of Torah is comparable to a fish in water, as in Rabbi Akiva's famous parable. His fins are the means by which he moves forward through the water--the intellect and study skills with which he advances in wisdom and increases the Torah and makes it great with his own contributions (chiddushim) to Torah learning. His scales are his protective armor against predators and adverse elements--his fear of Heaven, which shields his learning from error and distortion.
One might think that the primary requirement for success in Torah is the "fins," while the "scales" serve a secondary function. It is the fins that move the fish forward, while the scales merely preserve what is. After all, learning is an intellectual exercise; piety and fear of G-d are lofty virtues, but are they of any use in navigating the complexities of a difficult Tosafot?
In truth, however, the very opposite is the case. A scholar with fins but no scales is a non-kosher fish. He might swim and frolic with his talent and genius, but his learning is corrupt; it is not Torah, but his egoistic arrogation of the divine wisdom. On the other hand, the Talmud tells us that while there are fish with fins and no scales, all fish with scales have fins (and are thus kosher). If a person approaches Torah with an awe of its divine author and the commitment to serve Him, he will certainly succeed. Regardless of the degree of his intellectual prowess, he will find the fins with which to advance in his learning and contribute to the growth of Torah.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Ten powerful things were created in the world: mountains are hard, but iron cuts through them; iron is hard, but fire melts it; fire is strong, but water extinguishes it; water is strong, but clouds bear it; clouds are strong, but wind scatters them; wind is strong, but the body contains it; the body is strong, bur fear breaks it; fear is potent, but wine dispels it; wine is powerful, but sleep assuages it; and stronger than all these is death. But charity delivers from death.
(Talmud, Shabbat 156b)
There are eight levels of charity, each greater than the next.
 The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others...
 A lesser level of charity than this is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven. This is like the "anonymous fund" that was in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem]. There the righteous gave in secret, and the good poor profited in secret. Giving to a charity fund is similar to this mode of charity, though one should not contribute to a charity fund unless one knows that the person appointed over the fund is trustworthy and wise and a proper administrator, like Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon.
 A lesser level of charity than this is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins in the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for distributing charity are not trustworthy.
 A lesser level of charity than this is when one does not know to whom one gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to tie coins into their robes and throw them behind their backs, and the poor would come up and pick the coins out of their robes so that they would not be ashamed.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person directly into his hand, but gives before being asked.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person after being asked.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives inadequately, but gives gladly and with a smile.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives unwillingly.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14)
 See, I give you today a blessing and a curse (Deuteronomy 11:26)
Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands...
This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: "See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]" and "See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse]"... For were YHVH to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, of if there were to exist something in the very essence of a person's nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed...how could YHVH command us through the prophets "do this" and "do not do this,"...? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would YHVH punish the wicked and reward the righteous...?
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1-3)
 Only to the place which YHVH your G-d shall choose (12:5)
The location of the Altar [in the Holy Temple] is very exactly defined... It is a commonly-held tradition that the place where David and Solomon built the Altar, on the threshing floor of Arona, is the very place where Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac upon it; this is where Noah built [an altar] when he came out from the Ark; this is where Cain and Abel brought their offerings; this is where Adam the First Man offered a korban when he was created -- and it is from [the earth of] this place that he was created...
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 2:1-2)
 If there will arise among you a prophet... and he gives you a sign or a wonder (13:2)
The people of Israel did not believe in Moses because of the miracles he performed. Indeed, one who believes because of miracles retains a measure of doubt in his heart, since a "miracle" can be done by trickery or sorcery. Rather, all the miracles he performed in the desert were by necessity, not to prove his prophecy: it was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and submerged them in it; they needed food, so he brought down the manna; they thirsted, so he split the rock; Korach and his company denied [his authority], so the earth swallowed them up; and the same with all the miracles.
So why did they believe in him? Because when we stood at Sinai, our own eyes saw and our own ears heard the fire, the sounds and the flames, and how Moses approached the cloud and YHVH's voice called to him, and we heard it say: "Moses! Moses! Tell them such and such..." As it is written [Deuteronomy 5:4]: "Face to face YHVH spoke with you," and [ibid. 5:3] "Not with our ancestors did YHVH make this covenant..." The event at Sinai alone is the proof that Moses' prophecy is true without the shadow of a doubt, as it is written [Exodus 19:9], "Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people should hear Me speak to you and also believe in you forever." From this we see that prior to that, they did not believe in him with a faith that is everlasting, only with a faith that leaves a possibility for doubts and second thoughts.
Thus, the ones to whom Moses was sent are themselves the witnesses that his prophecy is authentic, so that he needn't perform any proofs for them. He and they both witnessed [his prophecy] together, like two witnesses who witnessed something together, each one of whom is a witness that his fellow is saying the truth, and neither of whom requires any proof of the other's honesty...
So if a prophet arises and performs signs and great wonders and seeks to deny Moses' prophecy, we do not listen to him, and we know with certainty that these signs are by trickery and sorcery. For Moses' prophecy is not based on proofs, that we should weigh these proofs against those proofs. Rather, we saw it with our eyes and heard it with our ears, just as Moses did. This is as if witnesses would testify to a person regarding something he saw with his own eyes that it was not as he saw it; this person would take no heed of them, but know surely that they are false witnesses...
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 8:1-3)
 And you shall slaughter of your cattle and flocks which G-d has given you, as I have commanded you (12:21)
We derive from this verse that there is a commandment regarding slaughtering, how one must slaughter. Since this commandment is not written anywhere in the Torah, we deduce that these are the laws of ritual slaughtering which were given orally to Moses on Mount Sinai.(Talmud, Chulin 28a; Sifri)
Here we have explicit proof for the Torah SheBaal Peh ("Oral Torah"), as we see how the "Written Torah" refers to it.
 If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities... (15:7)
The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of a different city.