Re’eh (Rosh Chodesh Elul): Self and community
The following words of Torah were delivered by Dr Russell Harding on Shabbat, 11 August 2018:
Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul which begins a month of intense introspection leading to the Yamim Noraim. What can we learn about this from Parashat Re’eh that we just read? We have no shortage of choice – there are a total of 93 mitzvot from which to choose – 55 positive commandments and 38 prohibitions.
What can we learn from this week’s reading that will help us over the next month with the spiritual work that we need to do. I have chosen two mitzvot from the available 93.
The first is mitzvah 467 in Sefer Ha Chinuch which we read in the revii aliyah:
בָּנִ֣ים אַתֶּ֔ם לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֧ימוּ קָרְחָ֛ה בֵּ֥ין עֵֽינֵיכֶ֖ם לָמֵֽת
You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.
Rashi explains the plain meaning of the text:
You shall not cut yourselves. This means you shall not make a cutting or a scratch in your flesh over a dead person in the way the Amorites do, because you are children of the Omnipresent, and you are fit to be handsome and not cut or made bald.
The word תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ is related to the word אֲגוּדָה, meaning group. In a discussion on the reading of the megillah on Purim, the gemara (Yevamot 13b) interprets לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ as meaning “you should not form separate factions”. The gemara itself asks, following Rashi, how can לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ mean not form separate factions, when the pshat is you shall not cut yourself? There follows a short, but intense linguistic and etymological analysis, the conclusion of which is that we can learn both laws – not cutting and not factionalising from this one word תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ.
The interesting point here is that the two laws refer to two different subjects. The prohibition against cutting is at an individual level. We should not cut ourselves. Factionalising is concerned with differences within Klal Yisroel which may lead to different factions following different laws. We saw this problem in the midbar.
Our reflection in the month ahead needs to focus on both meanings of תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ – the personal level in which we seek to exercise our free will to do what Hashem commands and at the communal level to prevent factionalism within the community.
Now for the second (related) mitzvah – 480 in Sefer Ha Chinuch:
טהִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֡ פֶּן־יִֽהְיֶ֣ה דָבָר֩ עִם־לְבָבְךָ֨ בְלִיַּ֜עַל לֵאמֹ֗ר קָֽרְבָ֣ה שְׁנַת־הַשֶּׁ֘בַע֘ שְׁנַ֣ת הַשְּׁמִטָּה֒ וְרָעָ֣ה עֵֽינְךָ֗ בְּאָחִ֨יךָ֙ הָֽאֶבְי֔וֹן וְלֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן ל֑וֹ וְקָרָ֤א עָלֶ֨יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְהָיָ֥ה בְךָ֖ חֵֽטְא
Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release has approached,” and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin to you.
We read this in the shishi aliyah. All outstanding loans are cancelled at the end of a shmita year. We may be tempted not to loan money to needy people as the shmita year approaches lest it not be repaid. The Torah is telling us not to do this. If we see needy people, we are commanded to loan money to them.
As with the previous mitzvah – there is both a private and a communal aspect to this one. I earned my money and it is mine to do with as I wish. In this mitzvah, the Torah tells me that while the money is currently in my hands there are limitations on how it may be used. This law is in opposition to the economic freedom of the current capitalistic society.
The Dubno Maggid (Lithuania 1741-1804) explained this through a parable:
A person prepared ten portions for ten people. One took two portions. Someone pointed out to the host that one of the ten had not received a portion. The host answered, “I set aside a portion for each person, but one of you has taken two portions, thus depriving another of his/her share. You have the extra portion, return it to the one missing a portion.”
“It was not I,” says Hashem, “Who caused the poor to exist in the land. It was not My error, because all received an equal portion in the land, but you took away the poor person’s portion and it is your duty to return it.”
The Torah does not oppose private property, but it places restrictions on it to prevent us from using our property for evil purposes. We are adjured to not harden our hearts nor to shut our hands.
The Chief Rabbi, in his commentary on Re’eh this week, explored the attributes of kosher and treif animals, fish and birds that we read in the re’vi’i aliyah. Kosher animals have two characteristics in common – they all chew the cud and all have cloven hooves. The fish, similarly, have two attributes – fins and scales. But the birds do not, they are in two lists – one kosher and one not. Ramban tells us that all the treif birds have a cruel streak and many are outright predators.
This list of birds does not only tell us what we can and what we cannot eat. It tells us about ourselves. We should seek to act like the birds on the kosher list. That is to say not only not to cut ourselves for the dead, but to ensure that we do not factionalise the community. Further that it is our responsibility to heal any existing fissures in the community whether we were directly responsible for their creation or not. Further, that we should be looking for those who have been deprived of their portions and within our means redressing their situation.
This takes us back to the opening pasuk of Re’eh:
כורְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.
Behold (singular) I set before you (plural) today a blessing and a curse. The month of Ellul calls to us to take stock of our individual spiritual situation but demands more that we take account of our community. May the end of Elul mark a renewed commitment to individual observance and to community harmony in Wellington.