Divrei Torah

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August 13, 2020 - Parashat Re'eh 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

“And you will rejoice before the Lord, your God, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your maid-servant and Levite who is within your gates, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow that is among you.” (Deuteronomy 16:11)

I recently asked my teacher, Dr. Victoria Hoffer, why, when she published the first edition of her textbook Biblical Hebrew, she chose the above verse for the cover. She told me that, too often, students come to the study of Hebrew with a kind of grim seriousness. She wanted a verse that expressed the joy of learning and of studying the Bible in its original language.

Knowing that book cover as well as I do, the verse jumped out at me from this week’s parashah, Re’eh. It did so for reasons beyond familiarity; reasons similar to Dr. Hoffer’s. Our parashah too has a grim quality about it. We are commanded to destroy, tear down, smash and burn all semblances of the worship practices of the previous occupants of the promised land. (Deuteronomy 12:2-3) We are required to put to death the dreamer or prophet who seeks to divert us from the worship of our God. (Deuteronomy 13:2-6)  We are even expected to stone to death a sibling or a wife or even a child who seeks to lead us into idol worship: “let not your eye pity him, nor spare, nor shield him.” (Deuteronomy 13:9)

Verses like these contribute to the widespread notion of “the vengeful God of the Old Testament” and all the antisemitism that flows from it. But for me, as I hope for most Jews, they are hyperbole. They stand out for being stark and vivid warnings against idolatry, but they are not what Judaism is about.

Our faith is not about punishing heresy but recognizing – and ultimately rejoice in – blessing. When we sing Birkat HaMazon at our dinner table or Psalm 150 in our shuls, when we gather friends and family at our seders or in our sukkahs, when we grasp an ancient syllogism or marvel at a modern insight, we are rejoicing. Judaism is the most joyful of religions because it revels in the goodness of being alive.

We find ourselves living through grim times. I sense that, beneath the fear many of us feel, is a well of inchoate anger at “the world,” at “the system,” at “our leadership.” Righteous indignation at prejudice, injustice and mendacity is, I believe, a noble sentiment. But to allow that indignation to rule one’s life, to allow it to blind us to our many blessings, is another form of the idolatry that our Torah so dramatically rails against. Failure to celebrate our blessings is to spurn the reality of our lives in favor of our own priorities. Yet how can those priorities ultimately be for good if we lack the ability to recognize and to celebrate what is already good in our lives?

For all the scariness of these times and for all the uncertainty they pose for the future, I cannot but think that for many of us – perhaps even most of us – our lives are filled with unparalleled blessing and, at least, the hope that we may enjoy those blessings tomorrow as well. That being true, we should not give into our grim fears. Rather, we should rejoice before the Lord with our sons and our daughters and our loved ones and – most especially – with those less fortunate, who most need the reminder that where there is life, there can be joy.
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Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT