August 17, 2006
The Key Is Rejoicing
Parshat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.
"I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures," the man said. "Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth."
Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: "Isn't this a magnificent animal?"
The man could not control his frustration.
"Rabbi, this is truly beyond me," he complained. "I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?"
The rabbi remained unmoved by the man's outburst and answered calmly, "This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse."
The rabbi might have been inspired by this week's portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re'eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.
The root "shin, mem, chet" -- be happy, rejoice -- appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.
This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.
A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: "Be my brother or I will kill you."
This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re'eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one's flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one's offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).
These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.
If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.
What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).
The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.
The message of this week's parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: "Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home ... then shall your light burst through like the dawn" (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.