Thoughts on Re’eh (5777/2017)
(Deut. 11:26 – 16:17)
[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, August 18, 2017]
One of my favorite Shabbat zemirot is “Ki Eshmera Shabbat” with which we opened our service. We sang the chorus of that song: Ki Eshmera Shabbat El Yishmereini – “When I guard Shabbat, God guards me.” Ot hi le’olma ad beino uveini. – “It is an eternal sign between God and me.”
What this all boils down to then is just this: Shabbat makes everything better.
I should mention, however, that the editors of our siddur didn’t include the rest of the song Ki Eshmera Shabbat. What really does it mean to say ki eshemera Shabbat, that I will keep the Sabbath? The song, composed in Spain in the 12th century by Abraham Ibn Ezra goes on to explain:
Asur mtzo cheyfetz, asot derachim,
Gam miledaber bo, divrei tzerachim,
Divrei sechora, af divrei melachim,
Ehgeh betorat eyl, utechakmeinu…
“It is not permitted to pursue weekday activities,
Or to talk about matters of necessities;
Neither business concerns nor political talk;
I will reflect upon God’s Torah, and it will make me wise.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done after such an eventful week as the one that we have just experienced.
And, as is often the case, merely encountering the words of the weekly Torah portion is likely to evoke connections to current events. For me this week it’s Deuteronomy 12: 2-3, early on in Parashat Re’eh, that bring me back to the news of the day:
ב אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ-שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם--אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם: עַל-הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל-הַגְּבָעוֹת, וְתַחַת כָּל-עֵץ רַעֲנָן.
2 You shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that you are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree.
ג וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם, וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם, וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁמָם, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
3 And you shall tear down their altars, and dash into pieces their statues and burn their sacred posts with fire; and cut down the graven images of their gods; obliterating their name from that place.
In the Torah, this refers to statues of Canaanite gods. The whole Canaanite culture, Moses tells us, needed to be uprooted entirely so that the scourge of paganism would be eradicated from the Land of Israel, and so that our people would not be tempted to go down that path of apostasy.
Funny thing is – such passages in the Torah have always troubled me. We live in a pluralistic age. We live in an age in which progressive people, among whom I would include myself, usually strive to protect freedom of speech and thought, even thought that we don’t like.
That’s why one of the most progressive organizations of them all, the American Civil Liberties Union, defended in Court the right-wing extremists who sought to rally in Charlottesville at the site of a statue of Robert E. Lee. A statue which, like many other such monuments around the country, has triggered intense debate. Some see such monuments as historical tributes to a noble cause. Others see them as no less obscene than the Canaanite altars that so offended the God of the Hebrew Bible.
But the intellectual arguments about the pros and cons of removing Confederate monuments are, of course, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The problem for Moses was not the Canaanite statues per se. The problem was the ideas that they represented. The same is true for statues honoring the Confederacy.
Ultimately, the Civil War was about defeating the evil of slavery. And, ultimately, our current domestic strife is about defeating the evil of racism that has never ended, even one and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War.
And, of course, we had the added element of anti-Semitism. The Neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville shouting “Jews Will Not Replace Us”. And the local Jewish congregation hid away their Torah scrolls off site because they had received threats that their shul might be torched.
The heavily armed White Nationalists claimed that they did not advocate violence, but violent clashes between them and armed left-wing “Antifa” counter protesters erupted nonetheless.
And the day culminated with the hit and run killing by a low-life neo-Nazi thug of a brave young woman, Heather Heyer, who had come to counter protest against the white supremacists.
I think President Trump has been given somewhat of a bum rap by the mainstream media this week and by spokespeople on both sides of the political spectrum. He said that there was violence on both sides. And that is true.
He did not say that White supremacists, racists, and neo-Nazis are morally equivalent to those who oppose them. To the contrary, he condemned hate in all its forms. Saying that both sides committed violence in Charlottesville is not the same as saying that the ideas espoused by either side are of comparable value.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the President failed to inspire us this week. Failed to soothe our national pain this week. Failed to bring us together.
I must admit that earlier this week I was feeling like I felt after 9-11. When the foreign terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon sixteen years ago, I felt unsafe and disoriented.
And when the domestic right-wing fanatics marched through Charlottesville preaching hate one week ago, I also felt unsafe and disoriented.
But, as I said at the outset, Shabbat makes everything better.
And the expressions of communal solidarity we have witnessed in the past week --- the candlelight vigils, the memorial tributes, the reaching out of neighbor to neighbor – these have also made everything better.
Truth be told, things are not substantively different than a week ago.
Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia and sexism – to name just a few of our society’s ills – existed before Charlottesville and exist after Charlottesville.
What needs to be done?
Donald Trump has said a lot of stupid, hateful, ill-informed, juvenile things in his short tenure in office, but for the moment I choose to focus on these words from our President:
“No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws. We all salute the same great flag and we are all made by the same almighty god. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.”
To which I would say – Keyn Yehi Ratzon/ May this indeed be God’s will and may we soon see the day when this becomes a reality.
© Rabbi David Steinberg
August 2017/ Av 5777