Summary: Re’eh is the 4th parasha in the Book of Debarim. It continues Moshe’s final speeches to the Bnei Yisrael as they prepared to enter Cana’an. Re’eh is a more specific discourse to the Israelite’s on how to successfully take over and settle a land occupied by idolatrous tribes, and going forward, make it fit for Divine worship.
Re’eh begins with the possibility of a blessing and a curse. The blessing for listening to G-d’s commands and the curse for not doing so. The opening paragraphs demanded iconoclasm, breaking down and destroying any previous places of worship used by the disinherited nations.
Instead, the Israelites were to set up a solitary new place of worship which G-d would show them, to bring their obligatory and voluntary offerings. There the people would bring of their flocks, grain and vine harvests, and there they would rejoice in G-d’s presence, remembering always to include the Levites in their celebrations.
In Re’eh Moshe granted permission for the people to eat meat of domesticated animals slaughtered in their local areas as long as they avoided consuming its blood. Only sanctified offerings were to be brought to the place chosen for communal worship ‘for your own good and that of your children afterwards, by doing what is correct in G-d’s eyes’ (Debarim 12:25).
After occupying the land, Moshe warned the nation against enquiring into the idolatrous practices of the previous occupants, nor to add-to or take-away from any of G-d’s teachings.
Even if they showed wondrous signs, the Israelites were warned not to follow false prophets if their message was to serve idolatries. The same for family members who might try to lead them astray – both should be executed to stem the possible spread of evil within the nation. Furthermore, a Jewish town that embraced idolatries was to be razed to the ground and never rebuilt, its occupants and their possessions destroyed by sword or fire.
Re’eh proscribes behaviours worthy of G-d’s ‘sanctified nation’ – including the list of animals, fish, birds and insects permissible as human food. It then describes communal responsibilities such as Tithing, letting the land rest during Shemitah,lending to the poor and treating the indentured-servant with dignity and benevolence.
The final section of the parasha lists the 3 annual pilgrimage festivals – Pesah, Shavuoth and Sukkoth – when residents celebrated in that place chosen for communal worship. (This is one of the portions typically read in synagogue on Festivals.)
Underlying Re’eh’s opening verse of being given ‘a blessing or a curse,’ must be the premise that there’s an ability to choose freely in either direction – the concept of Free Will. To the extent we make important choices we can be rewarded (or punished) for our actions. But to what extent are the most important aspects of our lives really within our control?
For example, there are more than 7 billion people living in the world. Only a very small handful enjoy a standard of living that is defined as ‘earning more than $5 per day’. As many as 4 billion of the world’s population are at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, living in conditions we’d find ‘intolerable’.
That we were born in a wealthy part of the world and not the poorer regions was not our conscious choice. It may have been our predecessors wish! But if so how can we fault others fleeing places of conflict and turmoil wanting to do the same today?
We neither chose who our parents will be nor in what country we’ll be born. The extent of our choosing is limited to a rather narrow spectrum of decisions most occurring once we’re of majority age – I.e. what school to attend, what career path to follow, whom to marry, where to buy a home and whether or not to become parents ourselves.
Are these the only real choices we make or are there more? How wide of a world view are we willing to embrace? Where does G-dliness fit into these ‘formulaic lives’ we’ve chosen? What makes any of us worthy of being part of G-d’s sanctified nation?
Moshe’s summing-up in these early parashot in Debarim, reflects the Torah’s relevance even today. It helps us remember that our ancestral roots were nourished during centuries of slavery and as nomads thereafter until Bnei Yisrael finally became a nation settled into its own land.
These messages from our specific ancient past, link us to the present, demanding ‘for our own good’ that the choices we really make include compassion, inclusion, respect and tolerance for others.