Re’eh: Once You See, You Must Act
By Andrew Nusbaum
Rosh Hodesh Elul 5778 • August 11, 2018
Today’s parsha contains a powerful challenge. Already in Moses’ farewell address we have reviewed important moments in the covenant, received some of our foundational texts, and been given numerous commandments. God, through Moses, is instructing the people on how they are to go through their greatest transformation yet: having been first slaves, then refugees, now they are to become conquerors, and then settled people. With the imminent chance to create their own society, God is trying to offer the people an instruction manual.
Many of us are likely to be familiar with some of the legal and social commandments. We are to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for festivals. We are to eat specific animals and avoid others. As always, we are told, repeatedly, to both avoid and actively expunge idolatry from our camp.
And then the challenge, so subtle you could miss it if you weren’t looking: “There shall be no needy among you, for the Lord will surely bless you in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.” (Deut 15:4) As if that wasn’t enough to chew on, a few verses later we hear, “there will never cease to be needy in the land.” (Deut 15:11)
What on earth do we do with this? Is this a command—it doesn’t quite read that way. Is it a prophecy? If so, it seems clearly to not have happened yet. And how do we account for the later verse? Why is the Torah teasing us by painting an economic picture that seems inherently contradictory?
In interpreting this passage, the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) used the framework of a “Divine promise.” He wrote, “A Divine promise is not like a pagan oracle, which tells us what will occur in the future… that would not have religious significance. A Divine promise is always a demand made of man… As Tosfot said, ‘No prophet predicts but that which should be’—and there is no guarantee that this is the way it will be…[that] depends, at least to some extent, on us.” To Leibowitz, “God’s blessing is conditional.” We are to work our hardest to create a just society, and if we do, then we will get some brownie points, in addition to reaping the immediate benefit. But we are emphatically not, he argues, to sit back and wait for God to do the heavy lifting.
So, now we know what we’re supposed to do. All we have to do is do it. Now, to be fair, it is quite admirable that in a recent global survey of charitable giving, the United States came in second behind only Myanmar. A recent analysis found that this past year, for the first time ever, American giving surpassed the $400 billion mark.
However, all we have to do is walk down Market Street or stand across from City Hall to see that we are still far from the goals outlined by the Torah. We live in an area where the median income is double the national average—but where the cost of living has risen so high that HUD recently classified families of four earning $117,000 per year as low income. The maximum number of beds in shelters is less than a third of what’s needed for the estimated 7,500 homeless who live here.
I read a story recently about Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the fourth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. He had been asked to help heal a nobleman in a certain town in Belarus. The nobleman had previously been kind to the Jews in the area but due to an illness had left his business affairs in the hand of his manager, who had been abusing and extorting them for the last two years. The rebbe made a promise through a messenger: The Almighty would give the lord one month’s health for each family he helped. The nobleman met the rebbe shortly afterwards, asked for a list of all the Jewish families in the region who could earn a living via his estate, gave them all jobs, and lived for fourteen more years.
Here’s what I was struck by: it was easy for the nobleman to help others knowing that he would derive a direct benefit, but before then, the thought had apparently not occurred to him. The story suggests the nobleman was rewarded for performing good deeds, but how much goodness does it really take to invest in a sure thing?
I fear that in our world, thanks to the combination of instant gratification and endless options for entertainment or distraction, we are losing the ability to see each other’s potential. We pass by a homeless person and see them as fixed in their situation. Some of us grow suspicious of larger attempts to address poverty as far-fetched or overly idealistic. We don’t see a chance for such people to grow, and even worse, we don’t see how they might come to help others, perhaps even ourselves. Every few years academics and policy experts remind us that there are better ways, more efficient ways, methods that would produce better results in the long run. But, unable to see immediate tangible benefits, especially to us directly, we often return to a position of cautiousness, suspicion and inertia. How different things might be if we were like the nobleman, if we too actually believed that our wellbeing and success was directly tied to our neighbors’!
Compare this to the model in the Torah. Compare this to the institution of the Levites. Unlike some cultures where the largest land-owning group was often the priests or the church, the Jewish model was to have the group most closely identified with God forbidden from owning significant amounts of property. The Levites weren’t paupers; they and the Kohanim were allotted 48 cities total (with about 200 square acres of land around each one), and besides receiving tithes when they performed Temple service, later books indicate the Levites became prominent in education, scholarship, music, medicine, and law. So they were neither large landholders, nor ascetic monks, as in Buddhism or Hinduism. Instead they occupied a fascinating middle ground: not destitute, but not entirely independent, either. Their welfare, by divine decree, was the community’s responsibility, and by forbidding the Levites to sell any of their land, the Torah apparently meant for this situation to be permanent. Consider it a kind of anti-Prosperity Gospel.
By design, the Israelites would have seen this dynamic, up-close, at every festival and sacrifice. Holiness, divine service, interdependence, all connected. And just in case the people might be inclined to leave the Levites to fend for themselves, God included an explicit reminder: “Do not neglect the Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion.” (Deut. 14:27) The Israelites depended on the Kohanim and Levites for their spiritual existence, and the priests and assistants depended on the lay people for their physical existence. Neither had the option of opting out.
Today, unfortunately, we are able to insulate ourselves from the human effects of poverty. We can roll up the car window, cross the street, or move to a better neighborhood. Our children are taught to avoid the poor rather than see them as part of their community, with their own God-given gifts and skills. It has become far too easy for us to disengage—and with that, to hide.
Our parsha begins with a stark message from God: “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deut 11:28). It is one of the only places in the Torah where we are told to “see.” Everywhere else, the dominant metaphor is of listening—think of the Shema. There are 72 references to listening in Devarim, as opposed to a mere handful involving seeing. Dr. Leibowitz suggests this is the Torah trying to alert its audience that the mitzvot in this parsha, including the Divine promise, are highly important. And rabbis have chewed over this particular passage for thousands of years, ranging from the sages of the Talmud to Maimonides (1135-1204), who constructed his magnum opus Mishneh Torah around the principal of free will, using this passage as his proof-text. All the ink spilled on this line seems to concur that the point is to emphasize human agency, responsibility and choice. In this way, it mirrors the popular expression that rather than looking to an afterlife, Judaism is more occupied with attempting to create a Heaven on Earth. By framing God’s instructions as a blessing or a curse, the Torah may be illustrating that not only do humans have free will, but also that choices and actions have consequences. We can use our gifts to create blessings, or live through the curses that the alternative brings.
We are at the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville. We are living through a time of incredible division and bitterness. The toxic combination of technology, celebrity, and an-ever-growing distrust of each other is poisoning our society. It would be all too easy to simply pick our tribe, dig in, and endlessly snipe at each other as significant problems go unaddressed.
How do we combat our instinct to turn away from hard conversations? How can we try to undo some of our insulation, be it political, cultural or economic? The name of our parsha, Re’eh, might provide a clue. Re’eh, as we said before, means to see, the one thing so many of us often avoid instinctively—because once you see, once you are aware of a problem, you now have an obligation to help fix it.
As we begin to prepare for Elul and then the High Holidays, I would like to challenge us all to attempt to live up, in a small way, to the Divine promise identified by Leibowitz. Between now and Rosh Hashanah, go out into the world and see. Really see. How are we living up to our obligations? Have we really succeeded in creating a society where there are no needy? Spend some time and decide on a need that speaks to you, and then make an active choice to help make it better. Will you donate more? Will you volunteer? Will you write letters, make phone calls, or go marching? What will you do to fulfill this promise? Perhaps the choice is not between blessings or curses but of being secure enough that we are comfortable sharing the blessings we enjoy. Go and see. And choose.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Accepting The Yoke of Heaven
Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, from Treasury of Chassidic Tales: http://ascentofsafed.com/cgi-bin/ascent.cgi?Name=491-30