Guest Commentator: Rabbi Jay Stein, Senior Rabbi, Har Zion Temple, Penn Valley, Pennsylvania
In the heat of summer, we tend to recall our childhood trips to the ice cream parlor. For me, it was Baskin and Robbins’ thirty-one flavors. I particularly loved bubblegum and Vanilla Fudge Swirl. Now, my children, big fans of Ben & Jerry’s, can choose between Phish Food and Chubby Hubby. The selection of favorite flavors of ice cream, though a critical choice for a young child on a hot summer day, certainly does not belong on a list of the ten most critical issues facing society.
Aeschylus writes toward the middle of the fifth-century in his play, Agamemnon (l.1364), “Death is a better, milder fate than tyranny.” On March 23, 1775, 1,200 years later, in his speech to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry said, “Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Living in a post-9/11 era, we tend to reframe the dichotomy between liberty and tyranny, making it instead, a choice between personal freedom and security. The subtleties of the discourse over the issue of choice in today’s world has become nuanced.
Parashat R’eih’s overarching theme is that of choice. Beginning with the opening sentence, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26) and extending through to the end of this section with the instruction for the pilgrimage holidays, the text deals with making decisions in our lives. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim commentary points out, “The distinguishing characteristic of human beings, setting us apart from other animals, is our ability to choose the values by which we live.”(1061). Solidifying this capacity becomes the marker of this week’s reading. Distinguishing between our holy places and others’ (12:2-3, 12:29-13:1); deciphering which animals can be used for sacrifice (12:17-19) ; making choices between true prophets and certain types of diviners (13:2-6) – each speaks to the issue of the types of personal choices we make in our lives, and the values we emphasize as a people. At the core of our lives are the decisions we make about how to interact with each other, with our world, and with God. The selections we make add significance to the medley of our religious behavior.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Unlike animals, man is the playground for the unpredictable emergence and multiplication of needs and interests.” He continues, “This, indeed, is the purpose of religious traditions: to keep alive the higher Yes as well as the power of man to say, ‘Here I am, to teach the mind to understand the true demand and to teach our conscience to be present’ ” (The Insecurity of Freedom, 7).
At the center of this week’s reading, we find a provocative statement, “Do not harden your heart and shut out your hand”(15:7). Using language familiar to us from the story of the Exodus, the text says it is easy to be like Pharaoh who becomes the paradigm for personal enslavement when he was unable to control himself. Seemingly, God says to Pharaoh, you are so concerned with enslaving the Hebrews that I will harden your heart and make you a slave to yourself. If you must control the behavior of others then you, too, will be forced to act a certain way. “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart ” (Exodus 10:20).
Both of these narratives are about getting accustomed to the right kind of habits. Training ourselves to do this requires making good decisions. Rashi, commenting on the verse from this week’s Torah reading (15:7) says, “There are those who struggle with whether or not to give, and so the text says ,’do not harden your heart,’ and there are some who struggle with lending a hand, therefore, says the text, ‘you shall not shut your hand.’ ” Rashi reminds us to get into the habit of giving. The Sifri (114) states, “If you do God’s will there will be no poor in the land , but if you do not, then there will never cease being poor people among you.” The Sifri instructs us that if we do God’s will we can change the nature of the world, if we choose not to, then we will suffer.
Again, Heschel teaches, “Man is free to be free; he is not free in choosing to be a slave; he is free in doing good; he is not free in doing evil” (Insecurity of Freedom, 15). We can exercise our freedom for the betterment of the world or we can be enslaved to our evil inclination and bring the world down. The decisions we make about the values we hold sacred change the nature of the world. The choices we make in the mitzvoth we observe and the mitzvoth we will not effect us or alter our world.
Each and every day, we make decisions to act or decisions to stand idly by and the ramifications of these decisions are great, for our children and even our grandchildren. Are we going to spend Shabbat at the mall or with God and our people in prayer? Are we going to increase our donations to worthwhile causes or buy the latest and newest electronic equipment? Are we going to attend a class in sacred text or go to yet another physical fitness class? Our lives present us with many choices; our parashah teaches us to make the right choices.
This coming week, we will celebrate the new month of Elul, the month we spend in preparation for the High Holidays. May we utilize this time to evaluate and prioritize the choices in our lives so that we may elevate our experience in the coming year.
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Stein’s commentary on Parashat R’eih are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.