Mishney Torah or Book of Deuteronomy repeatedly teaches the Commandments in order to inscribe them in the heart of every Israelite that lived out till the time close to the entrance into the Land of Canaan/Eretz Israel. The Kabbalat Mitzvot or traditional acceptance of the light yoke of the Mitzvot/Commandments is given by God and confirmed, then recurrently hammered out and determined with precision so that the people could accept these teachings as taking full part in mental reflexes of a nation of redeemed slaves.
The parshat shavua or reading portion of this week is "Reeh = See (I/God am setting before you today a blessing and a curse" in Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). Again, God reinforces Moses and the Israelites with a spirit that will allow them to combat idolatry and destroy all the idols, pagan altars and worships after their take-over of the Land of Canaan. This is a real theological question, still pending in the present. In this Mishney Torah, God repeats His Commandments of loving care in order to redeem all the nations and souls.
The uniqueness of what is said by God to the Bney Israel in the Sinai is proven by His trustful and loving care. Religion and faith have too often paved the way to horrible stiffness and certitude and ‘divine’ approval in the slaying of those whom have been considered heretical or spiritually wrong. The "acceptance of the Commandments" is so much beyond any human evidence that God requires humility and insights instead of self-justification. The problem is real as concerns "national" identity. Is it strictly a national specificity to be called to be Jews or would it also involve a profound spiritual and theological significance that presupposes a certain freedom of choice.
On many occasions, Israeli society would impose Judaism to people who come from foreign backgrounds. They would only achieve true Jewishness after a long-term process of understanding the Mitzvot and the core of the living moral and divine prescriptions. Thus, the Jewish tradition is strongly opposed to act by force to go through the giur/(turning of non-Jews to Judaism). Indeed, our present situation in Israel resembles the time when the ancestors entered the Land of Canaan, but it only seems similar. In our generation, after nearly 3,000 years, the problem is different because of the deployment of monotheism in numerous manners that we still have to know and not reject systematically. Then souls are all human and, firstly and ultimately, belong to God. Thus, who is allowed to touch or alter in-depth identities for political or national reasons that are limited by definition?
The reading portion of this week starts with the interjection: “Reeh – Look, see”. This is the very particularity of this week as we come closer to Ellul that precedes Tishri, New Year’s autumnal month. The original root has different meanings connected with “sight and meeting”. Thus, “He who sees comes to a place” (Berachot 9,1). “Look upon the blood of this ram as if it were the blood of an offering” (Bereshit Rabba 1) or “Mah raah? What did he see, i.e. what is the reason of such a situation (Baba Bathra 123a). “Nirah – it looks like, appears”: “He had said that things were nirin = supposedly acceptable”.
As also: “What has been considered as fit on one feast and then discarded may again become fit” (Sukkot 33b). There are some interesting extensions to the word: “re’iyah = sight, seeing, glance” as in “the faculty of sight – for childbirth” (Niddah 31a) but also “appearance, ascent to the Temple, aliyah): “the appearance in the Temple (pilgrimage, cf. Ex. 23:17) since all males have the obligation to appear in the Temple (Hagigah 1, 1; Peah 1,1). Finally, the word means “evidence, proof”: “It rests on him to produce evidence that he is an Israelite” (Baba Kamma 3:11; Ketubot 23a/15b (in Aramaic).
This week we are called to envision the goal of the most important Mitzvot. This is first the capacity to choose to receive from God a blessing and not a curse (“bracha uqlalah”). This is the “shtey drachim – two ways” options. Let’s say it is not easy.
Nobody would spontaneously choose to be cursed by God!! For instance, some alcoholics would start drinking in order to socialize. They finally meet with many lonely people in despair. From quenching thirst and feeling on the top of the world till drying any mouth pleasure, solitary addiction seemingly leads to self-destruction and hopelessness. More and more people in Israel drink beer, spirits and liquors and the cheerful get it down the neck can turn to some family hell or personal curse.
The same happens with those addicted to drugs. I used to find legless rolling drunken men and a few women illegally lodged in some cave in the outskirts of Jerusalem. They felt a bit fragile, as many broken souls, because of their tragic backgrounds. Curiously, they only could get out of such a hell by a personal decision, knowing that, being under the weather, God could bless them again and again.
Indeed the main purpose of the sidra is propositioned in two real, test-proof mitzvoth / commandments. Alcohol, drug-addicts, prostitutes and sex-addicts should be considered like true “poor and needy folk”. There are dissocialized inmates who feel cursed by their environment or their own mental stand, or were the victims of traumatic pasts and need God’s help to reinvigorate their egos. Assistance is very Jewish.
The first medical and social care system in Eretz Israel was developed by the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. This traces back to our portion. “There will be no one in need – efes ki lo yihyeh eviyon” as stated in Deut. 15:4 “because the Lord is sure to bless you in the Land that the Lord you God is giving you to occupy”. The word is special: “eviyon = poor, distressed” “who is distressed because he longs for everything (Baba Metsia 111b).
Then there is another verse, specified after this first mitzvah which states: “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth (eviyon bekerev haaretz), therefore I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy (“le’aniyecha uleeviyoncha”) neighbor/brother in your land” (Devarim 15:11). The same is said in the Gospel: “Jesus said: you will always have the poor and needy with you.” (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8).
How come that the first verse seems to secure all the inhabitants and the second one commands the mitzvah, which is in the heart of Judaism? It should be noted that these commandments are given together with the “shemittah – year of remission, especially of the debts” (Deut. 15:9-18). By the way the coming year 5768 is a shemittah – a year of remission. We are facing here the same quest as for “Shma’ Israel – Hear Israel” that is a pure and strict commandment to revere God without expecting any reward. The same happens with regards to the poor and the needy.
It is true that we are a in a terrible period of impoverishment. Statistics and ads show that thousands of children and numerous unemployed, old pensioners (Shoah survivors in between…) don’t have enough food or resources. Some charity movements or volunteers do wonderful work to correct these situations. In Israel, there is a widely “tzedakah” acting system that corresponds, to some extent, to the Muslim “zakat – charity money”.
The Christian Churches have been always very generous towards the local Arab people (hospitals, elderly homes), also providing some money and assistance to the Jews in many ways and for various purposes. Interestingly, the Greek-Melkite (Catholic) Patriarch Gregorios III (Lutfi Laham) who served many years in Jerusalem as archbishop, developed and continues to enhance with his hierarchy a strong network of assistance to the poor, the sick, the elderly people as a fundamental part of the religious love towards God and the humans.
This is the point: if we pretend that we love God, we firstly have to show that we are able to love our fellow people whom we see. Look at this psalm: “The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises all who are bowed down, the eyes of all look to you, and you given them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living one” (Tehillim 145:14-16).
The “You” form is both applicable to God and to the human beings. It is incumbent to the believers to show a real love of the neighbors/fellow people / others / enemies and, in return, God largely provides His blessings. This is exactly the same move as for Yom Kippur. On the Day of “At-one-ment”, the Jews are called to forgive each other and then be pardoned by God as a consequence of their mutual love and choice of blessing and not curse. It may look a bit dreamy… In Israel, as in many countries, some secular organizations would seemingly show more charity and assistance than the religious groups.
For the Jewish tradition, “’ani – poor / ‘aniyut - poverty” must be combated and is considered as a shame as regards social stand that leads to diseases, filth, immorality, sloth and depravation. But it is should be noted that the shemittah / year of remission of the debts and rest of the earth allows another consideration of “poverty”. Human beings must give a “leave, holiday time, refreshing year” to the earth that nourish. Of course, the Jews can reverse the mitzvah by hiring non-Jews, but the mitzvah is great and nice toward the soils that also need some vacation.
The observance of the shemittah shows that the faithful totally entrusts his life in God and respects the living, anticipating a year for the remission of debts and permanent agricultural production. Credit cards, money provisions (loans, overdrafts), virtual aspects of financial transfers alarmingly affects numerous families or individuals in the country.
Thus, Judaism values the spiritual wealth of the poor who expect everything from God alone and confide in the Providence / Hashgachah. This implies a good knowledge of who we are and a lot of self-control that is challenged by a system of consumption that has increased in Israeli society since 1967. “Israel asked the Lord: who are Your people? He said: the poor (ani’im)” (Ex. Rabba 31, Avot 1,5). In the Gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20), Jesus praises the “aniyut deruchot = poverty of spirit”.
Saint Francis of Assisi is called “Poverello – Little poor man” in Italian. 800 years ago, he launched a thanksgiving movement of freedom and pure love for the poor, praising God in His creation. The Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic groups appeared in a similar context. Poverty does not mean “poor thing!” On the contrary, it shows that every single soul is worthy and that everything is possible.