‘We are brought at last to the heart of Deuteronomy’

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By Stephen Berer
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17.


Torah is a complex document composed of many subdocuments, which I like to think of as knowledge fragments. Here are some of the fragments in this week’s Torah portion.

Deuteronomy 11:26-29: The portion begins with some insightful psychology, written 3,000 years before modern happiness psychologists made it one of their fundamental principles: We need to be conscious of, and explicitly acknowledge the blessings (and troubles) in our lives.

We also see a fundamental principle in traditional Judaism: that our attitude shapes our future. Torah asserts that there is a purpose and direction to our lives and to history. In spite of all the randomness in nature and human nature, over time, if we are committed to God, we will reap blessings. If we fail in that commitment, we will find ourselves lost.

11:29-31: We segue into some geography, geology and mapping the land, including the border between Israel and Canaan. This mapping is necessary because in the next chapter, these borders demark what the Torah declares is holy land, land God gives to the Jewish people, in which particular and demanding rules apply.

Deuteronomy 12: Everett Fox in his translation titles chapter 12 “The Terms of the Covenant,” declaring “we are brought at last to the heart of Deuteronomy.” These rules begin with a restatement of the causality between Jewish observance and a Jewish right to occupy the land. This causality, of course, stands outside of our current scientific understanding of causality, but it is one that permeates Torah. The text is also embedded with fascinating details that augment the basic theme.

12:2-3: We are commanded to destroy all foreign places and objects of worship. The text concisely tells us where to look and what to look for.

12:6-12: We get an outline the kinds of sacrificial offerings and how they are to be used to build communal connections.

12: 8-19: The text describes one of the ways the nomadic life in the Sinai will change, once the people enter the land and establish themselves successfully. Thus we learn a lesson about adapting our way of life to historical changes.

12: 23-25 expands on the prohibition against eating blood, which is part of Jewish culinary history.

Chapter 14 gives a comprehensive list of animals forbidden to eat. Here we have a list of animals known to the ancient writers, most of which were probably indigenous to the region, and thus of interest to zoologists, environmentalists and people studying the impact of humans on the environment. But of equal interest is the animal classification system that is embedded into these lists, providing botanists, ethnographers and science historians insight into classification systems that predated the modern system developed by Linnaeus.

The portion closes with descriptions of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, in which we are commanded to rejoice as a single nation in one unnamed place (which would eventually be Jerusalem). But let us also rejoice together as one people wherever we are.

Stephen Berer is a writer working on the epic story of the Eternal Jew. He is education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh and a teacher at Tifereth Israel Congregation. This column originally appeared in the Aug. 10, 2018, issue.

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