by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
רק חזק לבלתי אכל הדם כי הדם הוא הנפש ולא תאכל הנפש עם הבשר
“Only be strong not to eat the blood – for the blood, it is the life – and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” (Devarim 12:23)
This week’s Torah portion, Re’ei, includes a prohibition against eating the blood of any animal. Along with this prohibition, the verse states: “You shall not eat it, in order that it be well with you and your children after you, when you do what is right in the eyes of G-d” (Devarim 12:25).
A close examination of the verse reveals an apparent contradiction: The commandment requires us not to do something – i.e. namely, to refrain from eating blood. Yet, the reward of a good life for oneself and one’s children is predicated on doing what is right in the eyes of G-d, even though there is no actual deed associated with fulfilling this mitzvah.
The question then is whether the reward in this case is granted for doing the right thing, or for not doing the wrong thing, and how the two are related.
To address this question, Rabbi Israel Abraham Portugal, Rebbe (Grand Rabbi) of the Skulen Hasidic dynasty, points us to a statement in the Talmud (Kiddushin, 39B), which says that when someone refrains from doing the wrong thing, his spiritual reward is on par with having actually performed a positive commandment.
The commentary Rashi takes this concept a step further: If the Torah rewards a person for not doing something most people find repulsive in the first place, such as eating blood, we can imagine how much more merit a person would receive when overcoming a temptation that is powerful and readily available. (Rashi, Devarim 12:25)
Of course, each individual is unique. One person’s challenge is another person’s child’s play. As such, the reward we receive is measured according to our own personal struggle. This is the meaning of the Mishnah (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:23): “According to the effort, so is the reward.” The determining factor is not just actions, but also the sacrifice and struggle involved in doing the right thing or refraining from acting improperly. This is especially true when faced with personal slights or insults. As the Talmud (Gittin 36b) relates, a special blessing is reserved “for those who are insulted but do not insult in return, who hear themselves disgraced but do not reply.”
The following story (from The Life Jacket, by Chaim Walder) illustrates this point. A young boy’s mother came down with a very serious illness. The doctors had nearly given up all hope of saving her, and the boy, Meir, was desperate to find something he could do to help his mother’s situation.
After hearing his school principal discuss the special merit brought about by giving charity, Meir decided to donate his brand new winter jacket to charity. His family was not wealthy and donating his new jacket meant going through the winter with a tattered old jacket, but to Meir it was an easy price to pay. He gave the new jacket to his principal, hoping that the merit would contribute to his mother’s recovery.
One day during winter, Meir was walking home from school when a group of his classmates began to insult him. The leader of the pack, Elazar, singled Meir out and began to mock him cruelly for “looking like a poor beggar.” Meir looked up at Elazar and noticed that he was wearing the very coat he had donated to charity. Alas, it was Elazar who was the poor beggar – not Meir!
With one word, Meir could have ended the insults and put Elazar permanently in his place – but he held himself back. Just then, the principal came upon the group. He recognized the coat – and the situation – immediately. For several moments he said nothing, before asking Meir what he said in response to Elazar’s insults.
“I didn’t say anything to him,” Meir said. With that, the principal sent Elazar home and told Meir to come with him to his office. The principal was amazed. “How did you hold yourself back from answering? Even adults would not have been able to stand up to the pressure.” Meir shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, he said. “I thought it would be too much.”
“The humiliation you suffered must have come in place of an even greater suffering,” the principal said, and he offered his reassurance that his act would surely bring merit to his mother. A short time later, Meir’s family was made aware of a new treatment in America that held out hope for his mother. And indeed, she was flown to America and eventually recovered.
Our lives are full of temptations of all kinds, beckoning us to give in. Sometimes the challenge is in business, other times it has to do with food or drink, and still other times it is a matter of holding ourselves back from embarrassing another human being. The ability to withstand such temptation turns us into better, more refined, and more disciplined people. This, in turn, has a positive effect on the world around us – and the reward for helping create such a world is very great indeed.
Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
בנים אתם לה’ אלקיכם לא תתגדדו ולא תשימו קרחה בין עיניכם למת כי עם קדוש אתה לה’ אלקיך ובך בחר ה’ להיות לו לעם סגלה מכל העמים אשר על פני האדמה
You are children of the L-rd, your G-d. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the L-rd, your G-d, and the L-rd has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him from among all the peoples on the face of the earth.” (Devarim 14:1-2)
In ancient times when a loved one died, friends and relatives would cut themselves and shave portions of their head to express their anguish. Here, G-d commands us not to follow those practices. What seems strange is the juxtaposition of this mitzvah to the verses that precede and follow it. Why does G-d remind us specifically here that we are His children and a treasured people?
Death and dying are very weighty issues, and often misunderstood. The question of why bad things happen to good people, is one of the most philosophically challenging questions in existence. People who believe that death is the ultimate end of a person feel an indescribable sense of anguish when a loved one dies. This intense pain can end up expressing itself in self-destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation.
The Torah forbids such behavior. It highlights the fact we are the children of G-d, Who is intensely involved in our lives. Everything that happens to us is a manifestation of G-d’s goodness, even when we can’t see it that way. With the proper focus, painful experiences help us grow.
In the early 1980s, a book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People was published with the aim of helping people who were “hurt by life” to cope with their anger and conflicts of faith. It was based on the author’s experience with his son who died of a devastating, incurable disease at the age of fourteen. The author claimed that G-d could either be benevolent (all-good) or omnipotent (all-powerful). He couldn’t imagine that G-d could possibly be both, because he couldn’t reconcile how could there be so much pain and suffering in the world as part of a Divine plan.
His resolution was that G-d is good, and therefore, not omnipotent. He suggested that death and other painful experiences are the result of “fate,” i.e. outside of G-d’s control, but that G-d mourns alongside us. While the book generated significant attention for its unconventional approach to suffering, its thesis is inconsistent with virtually every source in Jewish tradition. Rather than offering solace, the author’s diminution of G-d is a recipe for added frustration and confusion.
Judaism rejects this philosophy and affirms that despite our inability to understand the reasons behind painful experiences, we are confident that they are part of G-d’s plan for us, His children, and that they are ultimately for our good. Instead of destroying ourselves, the Torah teaches us to grow through the painful experiences we inevitably face.
Sweeping Reforms in Education
by RABBI DOVID BASLAW
בנים אתם לה
“You are children of G-d” (Devarim 14:1)
The Talmud describes the teaching practice of Rabbi Preida, who serves as a model for parents and educators in their awesome task of instructing children. Rabbi Preida had a student who had great difficulty comprehending anything he was taught. Perceiving what was necessary to facilitate this student’s comprehension, Rabbi Preida incredibly reviewed each point of his lesson with this student four hundred times. Many centuries later another great educator, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (also known as the Alter of Slabodka) would fast upon seeing any one of his students failing in his studies, until that individual was well on the road to success.
Rabbi Yaakov Naiman recalls being a Shabbat guest in the home of his mentor Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein. At the dining room table, his host was testing a young boy from the local elementary school in his studies. When asked whose son the boy was, Rabbi Rosenstein whispered, “He is the son of G-d.” Noting Rabbi Naiman’s look of surprise he added, “If I told you that the boy is the son of Brian Cohen or Moses Levy, would you know any more about who this child really is? When I say that he is the son of G-d, do you not more fully appreciate who this child really could be?” Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, counselors, and anyone else who has a hand in the development of children need only to place the message of Rabbi Rosenstein in the forefront of their minds when exercising their influence on the lives of children (Darchei Mussar).
Most people are enchanted with and harbor a natural love for children. Rabbi Rosenstein offers an insight as to why this is so. A child’s soul is strongly connected to its source; it is completely pure and as yet untainted by transgression. Perceiving this purity engenders a profound sense of privilege, reverence, and love toward the child. The extent to which the parent and educator cultivates that awareness will be the degree to which the child will want to return that love. With this reciprocal process in place, a child’s potential can be fully realized.
This approach need not be limited to children. The following conversation recorded in the Talmud broadens its application to adults as well. Rabbi Yochanan once told his son to hire workers to complete a certain project. After bringing them to the work site, Rabbi Yochanan’s son began to prepare food for all the employees. Rabbi Yochanan later told his son that even if he would have prepared a feast fit for King Solomon, the obligation that he owes these workers would still have not been fulfilled in light of the fact that they are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There is greatness that flows in the blood of every Jew, for we are all children of G-d.
The Importance of Empathy
by RABBI OZER ALPORT
כי יהיה בך אביון מאחד אחיך … לא תאמץ את לבבך ולא תקפץ את ידך מאחיך האביון כי פתח תפתח את ידך לו
“If there shall be a destitute person among you … you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him.” (Devarim 15:7-8)
The Torah strongly exhorts us to have mercy and compassion upon our poor brethren. The Talmud records (Bava Batra 10a) that a wicked Roman nobleman named Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “If your G-d loves poor people so much, why doesn’t He provide for them?” Rabbi Akiva answered that G-d allows them to remain poor in order to give us the merit of giving them charity, which will protect us from punishment.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (1824-1898), often referred to as the Alter (Elder) of Kelm, questions Rabbi Akiva’s explanation. Although the mitzvah of giving tzedakah (charity) is certainly a great one, aren’t there enough other commandments that we can do to save us from punishment? What is so unique and special about giving charity, and why must the poor suffer in order to enable us to specifically perform this mitzvah?
Rabbi Ziv explains that the mitzvah of tzedakah indeed serves an irreplaceable function. Although one fulfills the technical letter of the law by distributing charity to those in need, in order to perform this mitzvah at its highest level a person must do more than this. It isn’t sufficient to give charity simply because G-d commanded us to do so and we want to perform His will.
A person dispersing tzedakah should feel the pain and plight of the poor beggar as if it were his very own. Just as a person who feels his own hunger naturally responds by feeding himself, so too should we strive to identify with the pauper’s hunger and anguish to the point that we would be moved to assist him even if we weren’t commanded. On a practical level, how can we achieve this lofty goal?
Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisels (1821-1912), the Rabbi of Lodz, Poland, was renowned for his concern for the poor and downtrodden. On one ferociously fierce winter day, he knocked on the door of a wealthy, but stingy, man in his town to solicit a donation.
After exchanging greetings, the man gestured that the Rabbi should enter, but Rabbi Meisels remained outside and began his appeal. The rich man was puzzled by the Rabbi’s behavior, but he attempted to listen out of respect. However, after a few minutes the wealthy man grew so cold that he was unable to continue. He interrupted the Rabbi and begged him to come inside.
The sagacious Rabbi explained, “I am here to collect money for a family which can’t even afford to build a fire on a day like today. If we enter your warm home, you won’t be able to relate to their suffering. Only by discussing their plight here at your door are you able to understand the magnitude of their pain.” Appreciating both the Rabbi’s wisdom as well as the extent of the family’s anguish, the miser gave Rabbi Meisels a generous donation.
It is difficult for most of us to relate to the daily suffering that many of our brethren endure, yet we learn that empathizing with a poor person’s plight is an integral part of giving tzedakah and is the irreplaceable component which protects us from punishment. We should all try our utmost to personally experience their pain, whether by volunteering at a soup kitchen or by walking through a park on a bitter winter night. Our desire to generously assist them will naturally follow, and in so doing, not only will we be helping the poor but ourselves as well.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
“See I place before you today a blessing and a curse… (Devarim 11:26) Moses enumerated to the Jewish nation the blessings they would receive for fulfilling G-d’s commandments and the curses they would receive if they didn’t. To drive home the message, the blessings were recited on Mt. Grizim, a lush, flowering, fruitful, mountain, while the curses were recited on Mt. Eivel, which was rocky, arid, and barren.
- The very next verse emphasizes hearing rather than seeing: “If you listen to the commandments…” (Devarim 11:27). Additionally, the verse containing the Shema, one of the most important and well-known verses in the Torah, is about hearing: “Hear oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” (Devarim 6:4). What is different about seeing and hearing, and why would seeing be a more fitting directive to introduce the blessings and curses?
- The first two verses contain the word “today.” Generations later, we obviously cannot actually see the encounter on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eivel. What message might be expressed with the word “today?”
Before Moses assembled the Jewish people on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eivel to hear the blessings and curses, he told them, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of the L-rd your G-d which I command you today…” (Devarim 11:26-27). The Torah promises a blessing for a person who observes the mitzvot and a curse to one who doesn’t listen to the commandments and strays from the Torah path (Devarim 11:27-28). Why might a person receive a blessing merely for listening, while the curse isn’t meted out for not listening, but only when a person actually veers from the Torah path? (Tiferes Yehonason by Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz)
Parshat Re’ei contains the laws of kosher food and delineates which species may be consumed. In another place (Vayikra 11:44-47), the Torah stresses the importance of observing the laws of kashrut in order to become holy and pure. How does consuming only the permitted species delineated in the parsha make a person holy?
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah commands the Jewish people to obliterate all remnants of idol worship from the Land of Israel (Devarim 12:2-3). There is an additional commandment (see Devarim 12:29-31) to strictly avoid even inquiring about the nature of the idolatrous practices.
- As explained by Nachmanides, the rationale for this prohibition is a concern that the Jewish people may learn about these practices and be tempted to perform them – not in service to idols, but in service to G-d Himself. Given the fact that the verse (Devarim 12:31) identifies the idolatrous practice as burning their children in fire as a sacrifice to their gods, how could a rational person believe that sacrificing his own child would be an appropriate expression of worship to G-d – especially since G-d clearly outlawed such practice?
- Aside for the concern raised by Nachmanides that one might be tempted to employ idol-type worship in the service of G-d, what concern would there be if people simply wanted to better understand the nature of any idol-worship service?
The Torah prohibits (Devarim 14:1) various extreme forms of mourning the death of loved ones. Why is the mourning period over the more natural and frequent loss of a parent longer (12 months) than that for the unnatural and seemingly more traumatic loss of a child (30 days)? (Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Pinchas Teitz quoted in Meged Yosef by Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin)
Q: The Torah prohibits (Devarim 14:1) various extreme forms of mourning the death of loved ones. As the laws of nature require every living thing to eventually die, why is it human nature to mourn the death of a loved one, sad as it may be, with such intensity when we mentally recognize that it is inevitable?
A: The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) in his work Torat HaAdam on the laws and customs of death and mourning, offers a fascinating explanation for this phenomenon. When G-d originally created the first man, Adam, He intended him to be immortal and created him with a nature reflecting this reality. When Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit, he brought death to mankind and to the entire world. Nevertheless, this new development, although it would completely change the nature of our life on earth until the Messianic era, had no effect on man’s internal makeup, which was designed to reflect the reality that man was intended to live forever. Therefore, although our minds recognize that people ultimately must die and we see and hear about death on a daily basis, our internal makeup remains as it was originally designed, one which expects our loved ones to live forever as they were originally intended to do. Thus, when one is confronted with the reality that this is no longer the case, the human response is to plunge into intense mourning. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The animal commonly considered to be the “most” non-kosher is the pig, referred to in the Torah (Devarim 14:8) as a חזיר, a pig. What is the significance of its name?
A: The Medrash (Tehillim 146) teaches a little-known, but fascinating fact: in the Messianic period, the pig will become permitted in consumption (presumably by changing its physical nature in order to chew its cud). This is alluded to by the very name of the pig, as חזיר is related to the word חזור, to return, which hints that there will come a time, may it be speedily in our days, that pigs will “return” to being permitted in consumption as they were prior to the giving of the Torah! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Torah commands a person (Devarim 14:22) עשר תעשר את כל תבואת זרעך– aser t’aser– (you shall surely tithe) the entire crop of your planting. The Talmud (Taanit 9a) interprets the verse by playing on the similarity between the letters “shin” and “sin,” and renders our verse עשר בשביל שתתעשר –aser (tithe) so that tit’asher (you will become rich). What source is there for the Talmud’s teaching that tithing will make a person wealthy?
A: The Vilna Gaon explains that the Talmud (Bava Metzia 31a) frequently interprets a repeated verb as requiring a person to repeatedly do the action referred to, “even 100 times.” (That is, a person is not absolved from the obligation by performing it once; he must repeat it as often as is necessary.) Our verse, then with its doubled command to tithe, should be understood as requiring a person to tithe his money –even 100 times. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 50a) also notes that the Rabbis instituted that a person shouldn’t give more than one-fifth of his money to charity. If so, the Talmud in Taanit questioned how a person could be permitted to tithe by giving one-tenth of his money even three times, as this would require him to give more than one-fifth of his assets to charity. To resolve this concern, the Talmud answered that the Torah guarantees that one who does so will become rich and will therefore have enough money to continue tithing – even 100 times – without ever falling below the threshold of having given one-fifth of his original possessions to charity! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Torah requires (Devarim 15:7-8) a person to be compassionate toward the poor, commanding a person not to close his hand to the destitute, but rather to open it. If it is forbidden to close one’s hand to the poor, doesn’t it go without saying that one is required to open it? What is the Torah trying to teach us by emphasizing this point?
A: The Vilna Gaon explains that while a person is obligated to give charity, he is not supposed to disperse it equally to each poor person. There are laws governing to whom one must give precedence when distributing charity, such as family members or people in his community, and the needs of each pauper must be assessed when determining how much to give them. Our verses allude to the requirement to take these considerations into account when giving tzedakah. When a person closes his hand and looks at his fingers, they all appear to be equal in length. Opening one’s hand reveals that each finger is a different size. The Torah already commanded a person to be merciful to our needy brethren. It emphasizes that the manner in which we do so should not be one in which we indiscriminately give equal amounts to each poor person, as symbolized by a closed hand, but rather we should open our hands and realize that each person’s needs are different. Our obligation to each pauper therefore varies, and we should disperse our charity accordingly. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Why would the Torah require a person to remember the Exodus from Egypt twice daily (Devarim 16:3), for which it is sufficient to orally recite verses which refer to it, while one is obligated to remember the wicked actions of Amalek (Devarim 25:17-19) only once annually, yet one must read these verses from a Torah scroll? (Darash Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS
THE SEEING I
“See; I place before you today, a blessing and a curse.” Devarim 11:26
See; I place before you – The Hebrew word for “see” in this verse is “re’eh,” which addresses them in the singular form, whereas the word for “before you” is “lifneichem,” which is in plural form. Moses did not suffice to address them only in public, but he also “took to the streets” and spoke to individuals to try and drive home the points he was trying to convey. Thus, the verse reflects private conversation as well as public addresses. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Before you today – On this earth, the choices before you can result in either blessing or curse. That which is not before you today [i.e. The World to Come] is only blessing. – Daas Zekeinim Baalei Tosafos
Rabbi Meir of Premishlan once hosted a meal at which one of the gentlemen in attendance repeatedly made it known to all that he had a high opinion of himself. Not wishing to rebuke him overtly, Rabbi Meir instead explained this verse in the following manner to make his point. “Behold,” he explained, “there is an ‘I’ placed before each and every one of you. This ‘I’ can be used for ‘blessing or for curse.’ One who appreciates his own self-worth and uses it to motivate himself to serve G-d more fully will merit blessing. One who sees himself as the be-all, end-all and the purpose of creation, will surely merit only curse. It is interesting to note that Rabbi Meir himself never used the words “I” or “Me” in conversation, for he saw himself as too insignificant to reference.
STRIVING FOR MEDIOCRITY
“See, I place before you today, a blessing and a curse.” Devarim 11:26
A Blessing And A Curse – With these words, Moses pointed out to the Jewish people that mediocrity is not an option for them, as it is for the other nations. The blessings promised them are well beyond the ordinary, as are the curses. If we strive for it, we can achieve spiritual greatness. If not, we sink to the depths of depravity. These are our only options and the choice to select a rewarding path is ours alone. – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, 1475-1550)
People often claim that what’s important is not necessarily to be a “good Jew,” but a “good person.” Sforno’s explanation of this verse dispels that fallacious notion. By virtue of the fact that we accepted the Torah at Sinai, we now bear a responsibility to live up to far greater expectations than the common man. As history has proven, failure to do so results in consequences that no other nation has ever had to endure. Success, on the other hand, rewards us with limitless benefits unknown to any other people.
SERMON OF THE MOUNT
“When Hashem your G-d, has brought you to the land that you are coming to inherit, you shall place the blessings on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Eival.” Devarim 11:29
On Mt. Gerizim…Mt. Eival – As soon as they entered the Land, they assembled at these two mountains and twelve commandments were enumerated. The people publicly acknowledged that blessings await those who observe them and curses await those who violate them. Six tribes stood on each mountain, with the Kohanim (Priests), the Ark, and the elders of the Levites in the valley between them. The Levites proclaimed the blessings and curses and the people shouted, “Amen.”
On Mount Gerizim – They turned their faces towards Mount Gerizim, and opened with the blessing, “Blessed is the man who does not form a sculptured or molten, etc.” All the curses in that chapter were first recited with the word “blessed.” They then turned their faces towards Mount Eival, and opened with the curse. – Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105)
Mt. Gerizim…Mt. Eival – The blessings and curses were similar in that just as the blessings were pronounced in a loud voice, so too, the curses were proclaimed out loud. – Sifri (Midrashic commentary)
What lesson can be gleaned from the fact that curses, too, were declared publicly and in a loud voice? Perhaps we can explain that whereas praise is often offered in public, rebuke is shared only in private, so as not to shame the target of our censure. That rule, however, holds true only when reprimanding an individual. When addressing a large multitude, the rebuke must be stated without hesitation, and without worrying about their feelings, or it will fail to leave its intended impact.
ESTABLISHING GOOD CREDIT
“Only in the place that G-d chooses within one of your tribes, there you are to offer up your burnt-offerings, and there you are to do everything that I am commanding you.” Devarim 12:14
Within one of your tribes – This refers to the tribal portion of Benjamin. However, this is difficult to understand, because earlier [verse 5] it is said, ‘of all your tribes.’ How can this be? When King David purchased the threshing site from Aravna the Jebusite, he gathered the gold to pay for it from all the tribes. This is why they are credited with owning the site. Nevertheless, the actual site was in Benjamin’s tribal territory. – Rashi
In P’ninei Daas, Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch zt”l added to Rashi’s point that from here we see that anyone who contributes toward the purchase of a place of worship not only receives merit for his contribution, but also earns the right to have the place called on his name to some degree. The fact that all the Tribes contributed to its purchase earned them the right to have the Torah refer to the place as belonging to “of all your tribes,” although in actuality it was in the tribal portion of Benjamin.
A BLOODLESS COUP
“Only be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the life; and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” Devarim 12:23
Be Strong Not To Eat The Blood – Rav Yehudah infers from the words, “be strong” that it must have been a widespread and popular practice to consume blood and therefore it would require moral strength to refrain from doing so. Ben Azzai maintains that this verse serves as a model for how the Torah wants us to observe all of its commandments. For if regarding the revolting practice of drinking blood, the Torah insists that we thoroughly reject the mere possibility, how much more so should we work to achieve that attitude regarding even those prohibitions that are indeed, tempting and enticing? – Rashi
Be Strong – Blood was consumed in order to access the Sheidim [demons] and glean from their knowledge of the future. It is because the Torah is so repulsed by this practice that it mentioned it numerous times  throughout the text. – Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher 1340), Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, 1475-1550)
Whatever the reason the Torah forbade the consumption of blood, it is clearly an unacceptable practice and one that is strongly despised by the Torah. Many people who consume meat from a kosher animal that has not been properly slaughtered and salted in order to remove all traces of the blood, are doubtless unaware of the severity of their actions. Additionally, our ability to refute the claims of the baseless “Blood Libels,” rests on our ability to proclaim with conviction that we don’t even consume the blood of animals, let alone that of humans.
GOATS, NOT KIDS
“When Hashem, your G-d, will have purged the nations whom you are coming there to inherit, from before you; and you inherit them and dwell in their land; Take heed, lest you are torn apart along with them, after they have been annihilated before you, and lest you inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations worship their gods, let me do so, too.’ Do not do so to Hashem, your G-d, for all that is abominated by G-d and that He hates, they have done or their gods; even their sons and their daughters do they burn in fire to their gods.” Devarim 12:29-30
Annihilated before you – When you see that I have annihilated them before you, think about why I annihilated them. It was because of their decadent behavior. Therefore, you must refrain from emulating them so that no one comes to annihilate you. – Rashi
Let me do so too – You may see their forms of worship to their idols and think that perhaps, I desire that too. That’s a mistake, for I detest their forms of worship and drove them out of Canaan because of it. – Sforno
Even their sons and their daughters – The word “even” is extra and is inserted to inform us that not only did the parents sacrifice their children, the children did likewise to their parents. – Rashi
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, in his commentary, Emet L’Yaakov, explains that Moses was not only warning them not to slaughter their children to G-d. Rather, his point was that there are elements of idol worship that could very well have appeared to be rather appealing and beautiful, and the Jews may have been tempted to incorporate them into their own worship of G-d. Therefore, Moses provided them with a vivid example of how debauched and ill-suited their worship was for adaptation. An idol worship that contains elements of child-slaughter is not worth emulating in any form, even its more benign aspects
THE CRITERIA TO LEAD
“And the omen or the miracle happens – the one he told you about – saying, ‘Let us go after other gods, that you do not know, and let us serve them.’ Do not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of a dream, because Hashem, your G-d, is testing you to know whether you love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul.” Devarim 13:3, 4
Ordinarily an established prophet may rule that under extraordinary circumstances, a commandment of the Torah may be overridden temporarily. This verse provides an exception to that rule. Anyone, even a confirmed prophet, who advocates any form of idolatry for any reason whatsoever or for any length of time, has inevitably demonstrated his worthlessness as a prophet… – Maimonides, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:3
Although this rule refers to how we evaluate the validity of a prophet, it also holds much value when applied as a litmus test to determine the legitimacy of Jewish leaders. A leader, who advocates the permanent abrogation of any Torah commandment, or even suggests that it’s okay from the standpoint of Judaism to maintain atheistic beliefs, is clearly unsuitable to be regarded seriously. Regardless of a person’s good intentions or past accomplishments, the Torah states explicitly that there are certain beliefs and practices that render one undeserving of being a spokesperson for Judaism.
“You are children to Hashem, your G-d; do not lacerate yourselves and do not make a bald patch in the middle of your head as a sign of mourning. For you are a sacred people to Hashem, your G-d, and G-d has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people from all the nations who inhabit the surface of the earth.” Devarim 14:1
Do not lacerate yourselves – Do not inflict lacerations and gashes on your flesh over the dead, as is the custom among the Emorites, for you are G-d’s children, and must therefore appear suitably becoming, rather than lacerated and hairless. – Rashi
As a sign of mourning – Do not overly mourn the fate of the deceased, because you are a “sacred people” and a share in the World to Come is surely part of his destiny and far outranks any pleasures life on this earth could offer him. – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550)
Do not lacerate yourselves – Although mourning is an acceptable practice in Judaism, one must not take it to extremes because if one truly believes that only the body is laid to rest, whereas the soul continues to its eternal reward, there is no reason to be overwrought at this prospect. – Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides)
Ramban adds that although crying over the departure of a loved one is surely a normal expression of grief, Judaism teaches that it is more an expression of our own pain than that of the deceased. A Jew knows that if we dedicate our earthly existence to serving G-d, we earn a share of the World to Come, and death is a welcome opportunity to reap the rewards of our lifetime of devotion. Only one who ignored his spiritual needs and dedicated his earthly existence to the pursuit of pleasures need see death as a final stage in his existence.
USE YOUR GRAINS
“The Chasidah and the Anafah according to its kind, the Duchifas and the Atalef.” Devarim 14:18
The Chasidah – This is a stork. Why is it called “Chasidah,” which is derived from the word “chessed” – kindness? Because it displays kindness toward others of its species by sharing its provisions with them. – Rashi [Vayikra 11:19]
If it displays kindness toward others of its species, why would it be included among the non-kosher birds? While it is commendable to perform kindness, one must not limit it only to “others of his species.” The stork’s unwillingness to relieve the suffering of anyone outside his species is indicative of an insufficiently developed trait of kindness. – R’ Yisroel of Rhuzin
The Jerusalem Talmud [Bava Metziah 3:5] tells us that while the stork is somewhat kind-hearted, the mouse [or weasel] is a wicked creature, because it invites its friends to share its pile of grain. This is perplexing because it appears to be no different than the stork, which is praised for its kindness toward its friend. Mayana Shel Torah explains that the mouse’s problem is that his pile of grain is not his at all. Rather, he finds grain that belongs to another and then acts charitable to its friends by inviting them to partake of this stolen grain. Dispensing charity with funds of another person is not an act of benevolence, but an act of thievery.
“At the end of three years, separate all the tithes of your produce of that year and set them aside in your city. The Levite shall come, for he has no portion [in the Land] or inheritance with you, and the proselyte and the orphan and the widow who are in your city, let them eat until satiety; so that Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all the endeavors that you undertake.” Devarim 14:28,29
Give, you shall give him – This comes to teach that if one withheld his tithes during the first and second years of the Shmittah cycle, he must divest his home of them during the third year. – Rashi
Let them eat until satiety – When the needy person eats until satiety, he is sure to bless you wholeheartedly and that blessing is even more effective than the one gained by the very act of tithing. – HeEmek Davar
Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) adds that in order to be scripturally obligated to recite Birchat HaMazon [Grace after Meals], one must have eaten to satiety. By allowing them to eat until satiety, they will now recite Birchat HaMazon, whose recital showers a household with inordinate blessing. This is why the verse continues with a promise, “that Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all your endeavors,” for the blessing will manifest itself in an untold number of ways.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
“Give, you shall give him, and let your heart not hurt when you give him; for, as a consequence of this thing, Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all your work and in all your commerce.” Devarim 15:10
Give, you shall give him – Even if you have given [the same person] one hundred times. – Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya
Give, you shall give him – The reason the word “give,” is repeated twice is to teach us that if one finds it difficult to give charity, he must work on overcoming that feeling and the way to do so is by giving a little and then giving some more. Once he does so enough times, the verse promises, “And let your heart not hurt when you give him,” it will no longer be difficult for you to part with your money. – Kli Chemdah
Give – the Hebrew word for “give” is “natan,” and it can be spelled with a “Vav” and without. In this case, it is spelled with a “Vav” because the numerical equivalent of the letter “Vav” is six, and it teaches us that a person who dispenses charity merits six unique blessings. – Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1270-ca 1340)
Ibn Ezra adds another explanation for the repeated word, “give.” If one gives, he need not worry that his resources will be depleted and that he’ll be left without anything more. “Give,” says the Torah, “and you shall give him again.” Giving leads to blessing from Above that ensures that we’ll be capable of giving repeatedly.
CEASE AND DESIST
“For destitute people shall not cease to exist within the Land, therefore I command you saying, ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your impoverished, and to your destitute in your Land.’” Devarim 15:11
For destitute people shall not cease to exist – While we wish it weren’t so, the verse assures us that the Jewish people will not generally succeed in attaining the spiritual perfection required to stamp out poverty altogether. – Ramban, Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
For destitute people shall not cease to exist – Since you have not managed to attain the degree of spiritual perfection that would eradicate poverty from your midst, you must seek additional merits in the form of assisting the needy. This is why the verse continues, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother…” – Malbim
For destitute people shall not cease to exist – This reality should serve as an incentive to the wealthy to assist the needy, for one never knows when the wheels of fortune will turn and he numbers among them. – Ralbag
The famed Maggid of Kelm once exhorted a crowd of wealthy individuals to assist their less fortunate brethren by pointing out that the verse guarantees that there will always be needy individuals among us. “Consider for a moment,” urged the Maggid, “what would happen if you failed to assist them. They would eventually starve to death or fall ill and perish, and there wouldn’t be any poor people left alive. Who among you is interested in filling the vacated slots?”
Hey, I Never Knew That
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
“…You shall slaughter of your cattle and of your flocks, which the L-rd has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart’s desire” (Devarim 12:21).
The Talmud writes that this verse teaches us that the laws of shechitah, kosher slaughter, were transmitted orally by G-d to Moses (Chullin 28a). Rashi (ad loc) explains that since nowhere in the Torah are any instruction given as to the method of slaughtering an animal, it must have been transmitted as part of the Oral Tradition, hence the words “as I have commanded you” are a reference to that Oral Tradition.
“You are children of the L-rd your G-d; do not cut yourselves or pluck out hair between your eyes for the dead” (Devarim 14:1).
Nachmanides notes that the introduction to the laws forbidding excess mourning for the dead is the statement “You are children of G-d.” He maintains that this teaches us that we are, in essence, spiritual beings, and that the soul does not die, only the body. Therefore, although clearly one should mourn and cry, since the soul still exists it is inappropriate to engage in mourning practices that are excessive, like self-mutilation or permanent removal of hair, for that would be tantamount to saying that death is absolute and final and includes the soul.
Word of the Week
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
“You shall destroy their altars, break their monuments and burn ואשריהם—ve’asheireihim you shall burn…” (Devarim 12:3). Rashi explains that an אשרה—asheirah is any tree or pole that is worshipped. Asheirah was a fertility goddess in the near east, often identified as Astarte and Aphrodite, hence the name, Asheirah (The Living Torah, Shemot 34:13). Rabbi David Kimchi associates the word with אשר—asher—happy, and understands asheirah as a tree that is planted to honor, or to make a pagan god happy. Similarly, Rabbi Hirsch translates asheira as a “tree planted to bestow happiness or blessing (asher),” as in ashrei (Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Clark).
“When you do that which is ישר —yashar in the eyes of G-d…” (Devarim 12:25).
Onkelos translates ישר as kosher or correct. Rashi understands the concept of yashar as going “beyond the letter of the law” and compromising with an opponent (Rashi, Devarim 6:18). This view is based on the Talmud (Bava Metzia 16b and many other places) where the obligation to be yashar is the obligation to do that which is correct and appropriate even though not legally obligatory. Commentaries note that the word also means straight in a geometric sense, and is commonly used to mean straight in a moral sense as well (Kimchi, Hirsch).
“These are the animals that you may eat: the ox… and the zemer” (Devarim 14:5). Zemer, the last animal mentioned, is translated by many as giraffe (Saadiah Gaon, Rabbi David Kimchi, Ibn Janach, Septuagint). Indeed, the giraffe chews its cud and has cloven hooves, the two signs of a kosher animal. Rabbi David Lau was asked why we don’t eat giraffe meat. He responded that although it has these signs, according to Rabbi Moshe Isserless (Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah, 82:3) we may only eat an animal if there is an unbroken tradition that it is kosher. Although Rabbi Isserless only states this requirement regarding birds, some commentaries understand that a tradition is also required for non-domesticated animals as well (Shach Y.D. 80:1, Chazon Ish, Y.D. 11:5). He concludes that although some would permit it, the general custom is to forbid it. The myth that it is not eaten due to uncertainty as to where to cut its neck is clearly incorrect, since one may slaughter an animal virtually anywhere on the neck, and the giraffe has the largest “target” area of any animal!
When a master would free his indentured servant, he was obligated to “Adorn him generously from your flocks….” In other words, give him a pension (Devarim 15:14). Rabbi Betzalel Stern was asked if it is obligatory today for an employer to give his employee a pension of some sort upon retirement. He responded that although there is no strict legal obligation to do so, since the Torah is only referring to an indentured servant, nevertheless he feels that there is a moral obligation to go beyond the letter of the law. He cites the Sefer Hachinuch who writes, “Even nowadays a wise person should listen to this command and absorb its lesson. If he has hired a fellow Jew and he worked for him for a long time, or even a short time, he should bestow upon him when he leaves something of that which G-d blessed him with” (Responsa Betzel Hahachmah 3:100). Other authorities note that if the local custom is to give a retirement package or severance pay, then one is obligated to do so according to halachah (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein).
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s Torah portion, Re’ei begins a series of three Torah portions (Re’eh, Shoftim and Ki Teitzei) that contain the majority of the commandments found in Devarim.
It opens with Moses declaring, “See, I present before you a blessing and a curse.” This statement was Moses’ exhortation to the Jewish people that the choice of whether or not to accept the Torah is nothing less than the choice between blessing and curse. It was followed by a formal, national declaration of this understanding on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.
Moses next warned that upon settling the Land of Israel, the Jewish people had to commit themselves to an unrelenting campaign to wipe out every vestige of idol worship. Related to this is the commandment banning private altars, even if used in service to G-d. Instead, the nation had to focus its service only at designated locations prior to the building of the Temple, and then in Jerusalem once the Temple would be built.
Even after the nations and their gods had been cut down, the Jewish people could not even learn more about their practices, for fear that they would be drawn into their evil forms of worship.
Similarly, Moses warned against falling prey to false prophets that may arise among the nation. Even if the prophet is able to perform miracles or other extraordinary acts, he must be utterly rejected and put to death if he attempts to convince the Jewish people to go against the Torah or to follow other gods.
This is true on a national level, and it is true on a personal level as well. Should a brother, a wife or close friend try to entice an individual to stray from the path of serving G-d, he or she must be shown no mercy. Should an entire city go astray, that city must be destroyed and left as an “eternal heap,” never to be rebuilt. Such is the tremendously powerful need to maintain the sanctity of the nation’s commitment to G-d.
Re’ei continues with an explanation of many of the laws associated with kosher animals. Animals must have completely split hooves and chew their cud to be kosher; fish must have fins and scales. As for fowl, Moshe listed the birds that are forbidden.
Moshe also established a seven-year tithing cycle. After the Kohen’s portion has been taken from produce, and the Levite’s tithe has been taken, the owner must take a second tithe. In the first, second and fourth years, that portion is either taken to be eaten in Jerusalem, or it is redeemed for money, which must be spent on food in Jerusalem. In the third and sixth year, the tithe is separated for the poor.
The seventh year is the Sabbatical year. All produce is declared ownerless and permissible for anyone to take. Additionally, according to Torah law, all personal loans are forgiven in the seventh year. (Over time, the Rabbis saw that people refrained from lending money to the poor. They therefore instituted several corrective measures to protect lenders and ensure that the poor could still obtain loans.)
Re’ei also includes the commandment regarding the treatment of Jewish slaves upon their release. The master is required to make sure that his former slave is able to get a proper new start. He must give him cattle, produce and other generous gifts. This Torah portion concludes with the requirement to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the three Festivals, Passover, Shavuout and Succot, and to bring offerings in honor of the occasion.