AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Re'eh

Updated: Oct 15

Parashat Re’eh

Av 25, 5780 – August 15, 2020

Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Re’eh which is Hebrew for “see.” This is the opening word of the parashah, which we read as Moshe Rabbeinu addresses the people of Israel. “See” he says, “I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” (11:26) Between this parashah and the next two – Parashat Shoftim and Parashat Teitzei – we are given a majority of the commandments that are identified in Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy.[1] But, as Rashi points out, the blessings and curses that are mentioned at the beginning of this portion are not actually given – at least, not right away. Instead we are given instructions for a sequence of blessings and curses which are to be given later at Mount Gerizim and Mount Aival.[2] The nuance of this point is that precepts are generally given before they need to be implemented, and this is the case for the mitzvot that are unique to Eretz Yisrael – which the Israelites have yet to enter. But the main axiom driving this parashah is the doctrine of free choice. We have the freedom to choose whether we “hearken” to the commandments or disobey them, and our choice about the path we take can become defined by a reality that is either a blessing or a curse. This is a dichotomy that underlies the vital task of caring for the Land of Israel. But seeing is also a matter of perspective. In Bereishit Rabbah 51:3 we read: “No evil thing is issued from above.”[3] This is one reason why the word “curse” has sometimes been translated as “substitute” – because Hashem only delivers blessings, but those blessings can become substituted by something else.[4] The dichotomy arises because of how we perceive phenomena, which is also dependent upon the condition of our lives. Are we in a state where we can be receptive to a blessing? Or will the events of our lives be forever disguised as something else?

This is certainly a theme that is arising as human beings are encountering the monumental task of addressing the environmental crisis. And one could make the claim that this is a curse of our own making – a curse that we were, perhaps, even destined to make. Later, in Parashat Nitzavim, we read: “See…I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse.” (30:15-20) In the Age of the Anthropocene, it has become increasingly clear that humans have chosen death, or – at least – some kind of modified, substitute for life. And the impacts of this choice have impacted the physical environment so severely that we are losing ecosystems and wildlife at an alarming rate. “Choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring” (30:19) – embedded within this verse is, of course, an underlying belief and acceptance of Torah. But with that perspective also comes an obligation to live up to the holiness of the Land – to care for it, to safeguard it, and ensure that the Land remains in a condition whereby the generations that come after you can also choose life. Later in 12:30, when we read about the prohibitions against copying the rites of the Canaanites, a warning is provided to “be careful to not be lured to follow their ways.”[5] Implicit within “their ways” is a variety of behavior that brought about their own (that being the Canaanites’) destruction, which also degenerated the holiness of the land. It is important to note that the chosenness of the Land of Israel is distinct from its holiness – these are two separate theological elements that are also echoed in the Jewish people. And because the root of all life is holiness, this is a concept that can be extended beyond the Land of Israel – despite its chosenness. The point here is that “seeing” is a challenge to be met; having the freedom to choose our reality is woven into our destiny, and that destiny is dependent upon our capacity to honor the sanctity of the Land. Otherwise, we end up with some kind of modified substitute for life, which can only partly embrace the safety of future generations. The summons now, for the collective earth community, is to “see” that the only choice we have is the free and unrestrained assertion of will – and “since the intrinsic will of the human soul is for life and wellbeing,”[6] the only free choice we have is to care for the earth: to change our ways, to honor the good, and to consider all the events of our lives as blessings from above.

The intention is not to reduce, or simplify, the truth about modern life – or to objectify the reality of suffering being experienced by billions of people across the globe. But, rather, to internalize two ideas: that 1) “Hashem, your G-d, is testing you” (13:4) and 2) that this first realization should inspire a heartfelt conviction to confront the collective suffering of this world. “One of the basic teachings of the Torah is that G-d does not expect of a human being anything which is beyond the human capacity to carry out.”[7] And this notion should serve as somewhat of a comfort for those of us wanting to institute change by ecologically repairing our world. Sometimes activism is actually about the small things that we see directly in front of us, not necessarily the big ideas that we have yet to imagine – maybe it’s something as small as picking up that piece of garbage that blows by you in the street. The point is that Hashem will not put anything in front of you that you cannot handle. Inherent within the doctrine of free choice is the opportunity to realize our potential, and inherent within a blessing is the opportunity to act on that potential. That’s why it’s a blessing. This is something that we can take to heart when we see openings to act on our desire to confront suffering. In the Talmud (Yoma71a) we read that “every Jew should be an ‘animator of the living.’”[8] This is a concept that arises later in the parashah around the mitzvah of charity, tzedakah, and the forgiving of loans during the Sabbatical Year. But tzedakah is, in essence, an “act of life-giving.”[9] This, of course, because charity can quite literally sustain the life of the poor. But we can think of tzedakah as a quantitative exercise as much as a qualitative one – it’s a material exercise as much as it’s a spiritual one. The earth, too, is in a desperate situation in need of new life. The qualitative exercise of earth-based tzedakah is about realizing that every physical thing (including the earth) has a spiritual source from which it derives its vitality, and our job – as animators of the living – is to provide those things with new life. In our journey to elevate our own vitalizing soul, it is our duty to care for those who are in despair – both the poor and the earth. The Sages often equate tzedakah with all of the other commandments; throughout the Jerusalem Talmud charity is actually called “The Commandment.”[10] So now, one could say, that the most vitally important mitzvah is the mitzvah of earth-based tzedakah, which includes both the poor and the extended earth family of non-human animals and flora who are in need of new life.

In Chapter 14, this parashah outlines the laws of forbidden foods. But, before that, we read about the regulations surrounding the consumption of non-sacrificial meat. Basically, this is kosher meat – meat eaten for ordinary sustenance that, while not given as an offering in the Temple, still needed (or needs) to undergo certain procedures of ritual slaughter. It’s important to note, and this is something that’s highlighted in the Talmud (Chullin 16b-17a) as well, that non-sacrificial meat was originally prohibited, and this is something that changes once the Israelites enter the Land.[11] In 12:23 we read: “Be strong to not eat the blood.” There’s a rabbinic interpretation that eating blood strengthens the body,[12] and it strengthens the body because there’s life in the blood. In this same verse we read “for the blood, it is the life” which is why the nefesh, the soul, is directly associated with the blood. But this verse is indicating that a person will be strong even though blood is not eaten. There are many things in this world that make us strong – steroids, machines, guns, and many varieties of technology. And some of those things have been harmful for our humanity and for the earth. But there’s something very interesting happening here with a prohibition given once the Israelites enter the Land – which is to say once the Israelites are positioned in a way to choose a blessing or a curse. Because this commandment (to not eat the blood) is about the practical implementation of a material gesture that does not denigrate life. And this is inseperable from a duty to care for the Land and safeguard its holiness. Strength is about positioning ourselves for a blessing and seeing the challenges of this world as an opportunity for growth and spiritual development. And we can’t position ourselves to care for the Land when we are strengthening ourselves by injuring the ‘animators of the living.’ Put another way, there’s no justification, anymore, in this modern world, to profit off the lives of others – other creatures, other habitats, other cultures. In industrialized societies, our ‘substitutions’ certainly impact local environments but also impact environments around the world – the earth is an interconnected web of systems. This parashah, Parashat Re’eh, is asking us to “see” those impacts and to consider the systems on which many lives depend.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Choosing life in the Anthropocene, supporting the holiness of the Land, earth-based tzedakah, and finding strength in times of crisis


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References

Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.998 [2] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1198 [3] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1199 [4] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1199 [5] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1207 [6] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2271/jewish/A-Choice-of-Choices.htm [7] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1211, excerpts from letters written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson [8] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1225 [9] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1225 [10] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1225 [11] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1204 [12] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1205

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