An Exegetical and Archaeological Experience

Re'eh By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 19, 2006 / 5766 | Torah Commentary | Israel

This past June, our family journeyed to Israel — to reenergize our spiritual selves, to reconnect with the land and people of Israel, and to introduce our daughter to friends and family. As part of our two–and–a–half–week pilgrimage, we participated in an archaeological dig at Beit Guvrin. Located between Jerusalem and Beersheva, it is a village that thrived in Second Temple times over 2,000 years ago. Thanks to the vision of Bernie and Fran Alpert, American–Israelis from Chicago who founded Archaeological Seminars in Beit Guvrin, the many layers and treasures of this place have yielded numerous insights into the roots of the Jewish people in their native land. And, much to our amazement, our seven–year–old son, Adir, excitedly discovered a complete oil lamp as he dug his way into the soil of Israel. A 2,000–year–old oil lamp uncovered in the hands of a seven–year–old Jewish child represents both the miracle of Jewish continuity and, very tangibly, the experience of Torah.

Learning Torah is an archaeological dig; and more often than not, Torah illuminates its seekers — rooting us in the past and giving us direction for the future. More than that, the rabbis understood Torah to be richly layered and so created an acronym to convey this depth: pardes. While this simple Hebrew word literally means “orchard,” it came to symbolize the four levels of interpretation of Torah: peshat (the literal interpretation),remez (the suggestive level), derash (the homiletical dimension), and sod (the secretive exegesis). Any verse, the rabbis argued, could be read on each of these levels. Accordingly, Parashat Re’eh treats us to such an exegetical and archaeological experience. We will explore one verse in particular, Deuteronomy 14:1, on both the literal and homiletical levels and thus derive their particular lessons for life as Jews in the modern world.

Deuteronomy 14:1 teaches, “You are children to Adonai, your God; you will not gash yourselves nor shave the front of your heads for the dead.” How are we to understand the significance of this verse? Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, explains, “You will not gash yourselves nor shave the front of your heads over a dead person in the way the Amorites do, because you are children of God and you are expected to be pleasant and whole — not severed in any way nor deliberately bald.” Rashi and other commentators seek to underscore the literal sense (peshat) of our verse. Torah mandates against excessive mourning rituals. Being cognizant of the mourning practices of other Near Eastern peoples, Torah legislates very real limits to mourning. Injuring oneself so as to inflict physical pain or shaving one’s head as a sign of mourning are explicitly prohibited by Torah.

Though Rashi mentions the Amorite nation, in our own day, we can point directly to the mourning practices seen in the Muslim world and in particular among Shiite sects in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. In commemoration of their founding ancestor, Imam Ali Hussein, and his martyrdom at Karbala, Shiites flagellate and inflict physical pain upon themselves — ostensibly demonstrating empathy with their prophet. While sacred scripture acknowledges the depth of one’s emotional pain at a time of mourning and the desire to express that empathy, Torah places such observances outside the bounds of Israelite religion. Rabbinic Judaism gives more sophisticated articulation to this notion in setting up a calendar of “mourning milestones” over the course of a year of mourning — aninut (the period until burial), shiv’ah (seven days from the time of burial), shloshim(thirty days), and in the case of the death of a parent, eleven months and one day of kaddish. These “mourning mile markers” frame the experience of loss in a sacred and healthy context, helping the mourner to cope with loss and transitioning that individual back into the world.

Interestingly enough, the Talmud’s homiletical commentary (derash) on Deuteronomy 14:1 departs radically from Rashi’s literal explanation. In Tractate Yevamot 14a, the sages explain, “Do not make gashes in yourselves — this means do not become fractious and separate into many different groups.” Abandoning the literal meaning for individuals in favor of a more expansive lesson for the Children of Israel, the Talmud cautions the people not to splinter into many different groups. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen, in his collection of essays Likrat Shabbat, writes, “Torah is intimately familiar with the nature of the Children of Israel, who love to separate into factions and factions of factions. A well known aphorism attests to the truth of this phenomenon: ‘two Jews, three opinions.’ Therefore, before entering the land Moses warns the people ‘do not make gashes in yourselves — do not separate into many different groups’ ” (HaCohen, Likrat Shabbat [in Hebrew], 192). The explanation of the rabbis and supercommentary are insightful. While wandering in the desert, there was a sense that the circumstances of rootlessness created unity and dependence among the Children of Israel. Now that the Israelites will become settled, and will hopefully live in peace in their land, they must be on guard to preserve that sense of unity. And so while diversity within a nation is healthy, losing sight of the ties that bind a people together leads to fractious behavior.

Rabbi HaCohen offers an even more astute insight vis–à–vis the juxtaposition of the rabbinic understanding of our verse and its connection to the dead: “Why does Torah create such a link? For when a leader or great rabbi passes away, immediately the constituency argues over succession and they form various groups in the leader’s absence. That is why the Torah warns ‘do not make gashes in yourselves — for the dead.’ ” One may point to numerous times in history when such a situation has existed — whether it be over the leadership of a Hassidic sect or the government of the State of Israel, as we saw in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (z”l). As always, the challenge is finding the golden mean between a respect for diverse opinions and civil discourse on the one hand, and endless disagreement on the other.

Thus, Deuteronomy 14:1 offers a rich experience in exegetical archaeology. Just as Beit Guvrin yields its treasures when one digs consistently and deep enough, so too does Torah offer its wealth when one has the patience to harvest fruits from the pardes, the orchard (four levels of interpretation). May we learn not only a lesson on the proper limits and boundaries of mourning, but also an important ethic on the value of unity and civil discourse within the nation of Israel.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.