Parshah Re’eh is brutal. Many of the words are ones of enmity and condemnation, commanding actions of phenomenal atrocity. It is a parshah of dictatorial wrath and vengeance. Death and destruction prevail. “…Put the inhabitants of that town to the sword and put its cattle to the sword. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction: gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the Lord your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt” (Deuteronomy 13:16-17).
The Israelites receive specific instructions to batter with stones anyone attempting to lure them into the worship of foreign gods. Be they stranger or close relative, the penalty is death. “Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him; but take his life” (Deuteronomy 13:9-10).
These passages are difficult to read. I cannot find my faith or my God in them. This part of our Torah seems closer to news reports of Boko Haram or the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), than tzedakah and chesed – the justice and loving-kindness I know as Jewish values. Navigating this piece of our tradition can be challenging. Can we find ourselves within it? Do we really want to?
The haftarah paired with Re’eh reveals a far more mystical and introspective spirit. The Book of Isaiah invites us to consider sustenance:
“Ho, all who are thirsty,
Come for water,
Even if you have no money;
Come, buy food and eat:
Buy food without money,
Wine and milk without cost.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
Your earnings for what does not satisfy?”
The light of Isaiah’s poetry illuminates the landscape within. What is the bread which sustains our souls? For what do we thirst? Connection, acceptance and love to be certain. Maybe forgiveness, understanding, and hope. Some seek transcendence, others ache for peace. None of these can be purchased, won or awarded and their absence can cause significant pain.
Yet rarely do we acknowledge the truth of our distress. Our days remain burdened by anxiety, depression, and fatigue because we cannot seem to hold our pain tenderly and long. We seek fulfillment through impressive titles, professional achievements, and community recognitions. We distract ourselves from the lack of what is truly nourishing, by indulging in what is temporarily numbing.
Through the lens of Isaiah, I see the brutality of Re’eh as the darkness constricting our souls. The destruction is within us. We attempt to annihilate those jagged fragments of soul that don’t seem to fit some preconceived ideal of life or self. We campaign against the shadows within us which threaten to reveal the excruciating pain of existence. And we externalize our pain by finding its twin in others and pushing them away. In sometimes small and sometimes very measurable ways, we wage war every day. Anger, spite, jealously, petulance, and malice are all weapons birthed by wounds.
These injuries of indifference, neglect and exclusion cannot be healed with the acquisition of material wealth, or through the rescue of others. They will not be silenced by food, alcohol or filling every last moment of our days with ego-driven activity. No, they must be unmasked, cradled like starving children, and loved. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, a leader in the Musar movement, wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a person is to remain asleep and untamed.”
Parshah Re’eh is a call to awaken to the destruction within. It is a messenger dissolving our collective blindness and forcing us to witness the injured spaces of our sublime souls. Applying the harsh injunctions of our Torah to our own lives, what might we learn?
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.