Sunday, August 24, 2008
Reeh: have a real look!
Mishney Torah\משנה תורה 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\קבלת מצות or traditional acceptance of the light yoke of the Mitzvot\מצות/Commandments.They are given by God and recurrently hammered out so that the Jewish people accept these teachings as full part of their mental reflexes. They are a nation of "redeemed slaves".
The reading portion of this week is "Reeh\ראה = See (I/God am setting before you today a blessing and a curse" in Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). God reinforces Moses and the Israelites with a spirit that will allow them combating idolatry and destroying all the idols, pagan altars and worships after their take-over of the Land of Canaan.
The reading portion starts with the interjection: “Reeh\ראה – Look, see”. This is the point as we come closer to Ellul\אלול that precedes Tishri\תשרי, 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?\מה ראה - What did he see, i.e. what is the reason of such a situation (Baba Bathra 123a). “Nirah\נרארה – 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\ראיה = 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\ברכה וקללה”). This is the “shtey drachim\שתי דרכים – 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 much 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 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 drug-addicted. I used to find legless rolling drunk men and a few women out of their skulls 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 mitzvot / commandments. Alcohol, drug-addicted, prostitutes and sex-addicted 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 historic dramas and need God’s help to reinvigorate their egos. Assistance is very Jewish. The first medical and social care system in Eretz Israel were developed by the Ultra-Orthodox Jews.
This traces back to the spirit of the portion. “There will be no one in need – efes ki lo yihyeh eviyon\אפס כי לא יהיה אביון” 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\אביון = 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\אביון בקרב הארץ), therefore I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy (“le’aniyecha uleeviyoncha\לענייך ולאביונך”) 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 this commandments are given together with the “shemittah – year of remission, especially of the debts” (Deut. 15:9-18). The ending year 5768 is a shemittah\שמיטה – a year of remission. We are facing here the same quest as for “Shma’ Israel\שמע ישראל – 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 going, in Israel, through 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 a wonderful work to correct these situations. In Israel, there is a widely “tzedakah\צדקה” 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. It is a fundamental part of the religious love towards God and the humans.
Thus, 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. 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\עני – poor / ‘aniyut\עניות - 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.
Judaism highly respects the spiritual wealth of the poor who expect everything from God alone and confide in the Providence / Hashgachah\השגחה. This implies a good knowledge of who we are and a lot of self-control that is challenge by a system of consumption that increases 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\אניות דרוחות = 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.
Baba Bathra 123 has a question: "Mah raah\מה ראה?": i.e. what does this situation mean? Can is to be seen "with insights". The Eastern Orthodx Churches come to the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. She sleeps into death and is taken by God and Her son to live for ever. The cross has the same meaning. Jesus sleeps into the cross, tortured and killed by all mankind represented by the Roman soldiers that followed the decision of the Jewish authorities. What can be seen, understood? One thing is constant and inherited from the rabbinical tradition: "yoshney efer = those sleeping in the dust (of Machpelah cave at Hebron, the patriarchs): the departed are born to be reinvigorated, to sleep into rest and rise again. The cross has the shape of the TAU - the last Hebrew letter. In the Hebrew tradition it moves back again till the "aleph" that links heaven to earth; the letter shows God's Presence above and in the world underneath; it also means teaching and governing, thus companionship.
How can we see that in the present in the hardships of monologued dialogs based on power and rules, rituals. The believers sanctify the world because they know whom and what they see.
av Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel
August 22, 2008 - כ דאב תשס"ח
Photograph: night over Jerusalem