Parasha Re'eh

"Teshuvah,tefillah and tzedakah" are the tools for averting calamity and earning blessing. We think of these tasks as individual in nature. Teshuvah requires self-improvement, yet little about Jewish tradition focuses on the individual. Each requires at least two and usually more persons. A central requirement of teshuvah is confession. We are supposed to effectively embrace another human being and confess our transgressions. We do not require an intermediary but instead need to look the other person in the eyes and say, "I've been thinking about what I did, and I was wrong."  There is no avoiding this if we are serious about teshuvah. Meditations of the heart are all well and good, but expressions of the lips are superior. The Talmud on Rosh Hashanah tells us that teshuvah requires a witness in order to be effective. This may be counterintuitive, but it is an essential Jewish teaching. The Torah wants us to not be holy individuals but a holy people. 

Parashat Re'eh makes this point in its opening line. As 16th century commentator Kli Yakar notes, it begins with the second person singular tense—Re'eh, "you, individual, look!" -- but then switches to the second person plural, "lifneikhem" -- "before all of you, referring to the entire Jewish nation".  Each person must come to realize that her or his actions affect everyone else. We are truly responsible for each other. 

Responsibility is developed in many ways throughout the portion. One of my favorite lines comes at Deuteronomy 12:8. Moses contrasts the chaos of desert living with the ideal society planned for the Land. Out in the desert "each of us does what is right in his own eyes". Moses seems to be referring to worship—without a sacred center, each person worships alone. But ultimately there will be one center of devotion. Our portion is very demanding. It contains 17 positive commands and 37 negatives. It regulates worship, politics, wealth, social welfare, diet and the festival calendar, binding individuals into a cohesive nation. 

Chapter 14 opens with the bold statement: "You are children of the Lord your God; you shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead." Many generations of rabbis have pondered the connection between the two halves of the verse. The dominant line of interpretation regards our attitude towards death. Because our relationship to God is permanent, like that of a parent and a child, we should not view the death of a loved one as the end of life, and we should not indulge in self-destructive habits born of grief. As Ramban says, quite touchingly, "the verse does not prohibit weeping, for nature stirs us to tears at the separation from a loved one, even when they are still alive." Rather, this verse led the rabbis to regulate grief within the structures of anninut, shiva, sheloshim, and the year of mourning so that it wouldn't come to overwhelm the living and lead them to self-destruction. Remember, you remain God's children, and you are beloved even when you suffer. On a psychological level, the Torah is protecting us from the isolation of grief. Even in life's darkest hour, you are responsible to care for yourself, because God loves you.

There are many reasons to divide the Jewish people into ever smaller and more specialized slices. We have important principled differences among us. Yet, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. The Torah was given to all of Israel as a means to bring us together in partnership with God. As we carry out our work of teshuvah in the coming month, let's think about ways that we can bring more of our people together in strength, in holiness, and in joy.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham