Shabbat Shalom!– Re’eh

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. With so much going on, our divrei Torah are particularly rich: our writers examine the confluence of the month, the texts, and world events.

Just as Passover preparation requires turning the house upside down in the search for chametz, the High Holy Day preparation of Elul requires that we turn our internal houses upside down to seek out the issues that we may have hidden from ourselves. Whom have we hurt or offended? With what behaviors do we hurt ourselves? This month calls for rigorous honesty and that, in turn, calls for courage. Fortunately the texts will support us in our preparation.

This week’s parashah is Re’eh, “See!” which is the longest of all the parshiot in the Torah. Some divrei Torah on Parashat Re’eh:

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi – Blessings

Melissa Carpenter – Re’eih and Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs – Why I Love the Lone Ranger

Hannah Perlberger – True Love is Never Blind

Rabbi Marc Katz – No Place for Factions

Rabbi David Ackerman – At the Crossroads, After Charlottesville

Rabbi Ruth Adar – What Do We Owe the Poor?

 

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What Do We Owe the Poor? Re’eh

Image: A woman huddles on a sidewalk, her belongings in a cart. Photo via pixabay.com.

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11)

With this statement, Parashat Re’eh explodes the fantasy that someday there will be no poor people. The passage begins with the rules for shmittah, the Sabbatical year, but this verse carries it far beyond. With a stark economic fact— There will always be poor people in the land—and the follow-up, which could be paraphrased, “And you have responsibilities to them,” the Written Torah undergirds the huge body of Oral Torah addressing tzedakah and economic justice.

When Maimonides set out to make a systematic study of our responsibilities to the poor in the Mishnah Torah, he looked to this passage and commentary on it, as well as the commandments and commentary for tithes and the corners of the field. As a collection of verses from the Torah, it seems a motley collection of agricultural laws, tax law trivia, and the law for the Sabbatical year.

However, by Maimonides’ day Oral Torah had developed these raw materials into a well-reasoned program for the care of the poor. This public welfare program of Jewish tradition is not a “War on Poverty.” Grounded in gritty realism, it is a relatively modest program that accepts the existence of poverty without “sending messages,” “teaching lessons,” or punishing the poor for their poverty.

It accepts the idea that some people seem chronically lazy, some are chronically unlucky, some are victims of politics or circumstance, and some have temporary setbacks that require assistance. 

The tradition as Maimonides lays it out is full of surprises for the modern reader.  If someone says they are hungry, Maimonides demands that we not ask any more questions, but feed them immediately. If they ask for money for clothing, however, we are allowed to make more inquiries about the real need, because that lack is not as likely to kill them as lack of food. If a person is accustomed to riding a horse, he says, then we should supply a horse to them (a very expensive proposition – the equivalent might be a luxury car today!) The dignity of the poor is a matter of great concern to Maimonides: he is willing to stretch the community’s charity budget to avoid shaming a person who has fallen into poverty.

Indeed, all of this is rather alarming reading to have in mind when faced with a panhandler on the street today. Our circumstances have changed in many ways. However, if someone says to me, “Can I have a dollar for food?” I remember Maimonides’ teaching and either offer to buy food or hand them a grocery card that will let them buy a little food. If I have to say no, I remember his teaching and say no as kindly as possible. Above all, I make sure to support the local food bank that feeds anyone who needs it.

What do we owe the poor? We owe them the means to live, and more than that we owe them dignity, no matter our opinion of them or their actions. Jewish tradition sets a  high bar even while it acknowledges that “there will always be poor people in the land.”

Part of this d’var Torah previously appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! – Re’eh

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov Elul!

This Shabbat marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. With so much going on, our divrei Torah are particularly rich; our writers examine the confluence of the month, the texts, and world events.

Just as Passover preparation requires turning the house upside down in the search for chametz, the High Holy Day preparation of Elul requires that we turn our internal houses upside down to seek out the issues that we may have hidden from ourselves. Whom have we hurt or offended? With what behaviors do we hurt ourselves? This month calls for rigorous honesty and that, in turn, calls for courage. Fortunately the texts will support us in our preparation.

This week’s parashah is Re’eh, “See!” which is the longest of all the parshiot in the Torah.

All Who Are Thirsty Come to the Water by Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Believing is Seeing by Hannah Perlberger

To See or To Be Seen by Barbara Heller

Show Me the Money! by Rabbi Harry Rothenberg (VIDEO)

Blessing and Curse by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Time to Prepare, Time to Pardon by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What Do We Owe the Poor? by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

What Makes the Pig So Special?

But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the hyrax — for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs — they are unclean for you;  also the swine — for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud — is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses. – Deuteronomy 14:7-8

Have you ever wondered why the pig has become such a primary symbol for Jewish dietary laws? People who know little else about Jews will tell you that Jews don’t eat pork. Jews who are not concerned about cheeseburgers or shrimp sushi will still feel a twinge (or frisson?) of transgression when they eat a slice of bacon.

How did the pig, which is listed almost as an afterthought in this passage from Deuteronomy, become so important a symbol of all that is not-Jewish?

Richard Redding, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, has made a serious study of the role of the pig in the ancient Near Eastern diet. Wild pigs were indigenous to the ancient Near East, and we know from archaeological remains that they were domesticated and eaten in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period, (2700-2055 BCE.) His research suggests that pigs gradually declined in use wherever water was scarce, because chickens provided more efficient sources of protein. This has led some Jewish thinkers to ask, is THIS the real reason that pig was prohibited in the Torah? We’ll never get the definitive answer to that, but it adds another theory for those who are interested in such theories.

(In case you are wondering: there’s no evidence in the Bible text itself that pork is forbidden for being unhealthy, because of trichinosis, or because refrigeration hadn’t been invented. The only reason for the dietary prohibitions in the Bible is that old standby of deities and parents over the centuries: “Because I said so.”)

However, the question stands: why did pork take on so much more significance than any other of the forbidden foods?

Redding mentions in his article that the consumption of pig meat began to increase in the region starting in the 2nd century BCE, with the growth in Hellenistic populations. Greeks brought pigs with them and cultivated them. Romans loved their pork. So just as rabbinic Judaism was beginning to take shape, the foreigners most despised by the Jews, the upstart rulers who profaned the Temple and imposed ruinous taxes also made that particular forbidden meat fashionable! So there’s one thing: Pork was the meat of choice of Rome and Greece. No wonder the ancient rabbis regarded it as particularly nasty.

Secondly, as Christianity separated from Judaism sometime around the end of the first century CE, it embraced the Gentile world and its diet. Among the attractions Christianity had to offer was the fact that one did not need to be circumcised or eschew pork to be one of the elect. Later, when it became the established religion of the Empire and later of Europe, the fact that Jews avoided eating pork became a “tell,” a hallmark of Jewishness.

During the Middle Ages, pork became not only a way to identify a Jew, but a way to humiliate and torture Jews. Jews were starved, then offered pork to eat. In Spain, those suspected of being hidden Jews were called Marranos (“pigs.”) In the 20th century, we know that in at least one camp the Nazis fed Jews dried pigs’ feet (Elie Weisel, Night.) Centuries of this association forged a strong connection between the non-consumption of pork and Jewish identity.

Many American and Israeli Jews today choose not to keep kosher, and they consume pork as well. However, even the most secular will attach a certain angst to pork consumption that they don’t attach to shrimp cocktail. Pig meat, an afterthought in Deuteronomy, became a potent symbol for Jewish identity. The reason? History.