Parshat Re’eh – Rosh Hodesh Elul

This week is the 3rd of the 7 Haftarot of consolation which will eventually lead us to Rosh Hashana. A reminder that Rambam Sephardi will begin reciting morning selihot from 2nd day Elul on Monday 5 September 2016 at 5:50am at the Elstree Shteible.

Parshat Re’eh is the 4th in the Book of Deuteronomy spanning chapters 11:26-16:18. It begins with Moshe setting before Bnei Yisrael ‘the Blessings and the Curses’, explaining they’d be blessed for following G-d’s commands and cursed for acting otherwise.

Re’eh is one of the longer parashot in the Torah, containing 55 of the 613 commandments. The opening sections concern destroying the idolatry of Canaan, building a central place of worship for sacrificial offerings, permitting the local slaughter of meat if its blood was covered, prohibitions against the false prophet, the enticer or the town whose people have gone astray.

Re’eh also includes the laws of Kashrut, Tithes, Shemitah; treatment of Hebrew slaves, redemption of 1st-born animals and the 3 pilgrimage festivals. (The final section is also read on Festivals.)

Comment: Parshat Re’eh seems preoccupied with prohibitions against idolatry – as does most of the Book of Deuteronomy. From the retrospective distance of 3 millennia plus, to the modern reader it’s startling to think this was the largest issue on Moshe’s mind. Why should the G-d of Creation feel threatened by man-made idols?

Consider that immediately after the Sinatic Revelation, Bnei Yisrael built a Golden Calf and, had it not been for Moshe’s swift intervention they’d have been written out of history. And, consider further that for 40 years in the wilderness the people, watered and fed directly by the hand of G-d, leapt at the first opportunity to prostrate themselves before the Idols of Ba’al Pe’or.

A famous story in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 69b) states that the Rabbis asked how it could be such great personalities of the ancient world were enticed to worship idols of wood and stone. They fasted for 3 days and were shown the likeness of a fiery lion cub emerging from the Holy of Holies. The tale goes on to explain that when they seized it, a hair fell out of its mane and its roar could be heard for 400 miles. (The continuation of the tale is highly worth reading.)

While allegorical in intent, two curious things about this story are 1) the fallen hair of the lion cub, and 2) that it had emerged from the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

Our scientific minds are quick to dismiss anything failing rational explanation. The notion of worshipping multiple gods; the sun, moon, rivers or mountains, should hold little sway over us. But, perhaps we’re missing something more obvious to Moshe – Bnei Yisrael’s motives.

Moshe ‘spoke with G-d face-to-face’. He understood if there was an omnipotent, omnipresent, monotheistic G-d, than giving priority to anything else was based on self-interest, distraction or false worship. Not only would it be irrelevant but sacrilegious to use a surrogate form of worship.

We have an opportunity to be in a personal relationship with G-d but too often spend our time doing other things. Consider the pathos of trying to hold a conversation with your child while they’re playing on an electronic handset!

The fallen hair of the lion cub which emerged from the Holy of Holies perhaps can mean the difference between G-d worship and idolatry is sometimes as thin as a hair’s breadth. Sadly, for 3,300 years, humanity has too often tried but failed then become distracted if not in direct conflict with, the aim of promoting human interaction with G-d.

It wasn’t only the ancients who struggled with this challenge, the ‘roar of the lion cub’ still echoes loudly today. But, it seems we may be closer than ever in finding our way back to the Holy of Holies.