Commentary for Re’eh

2 Aug

For the past forty years, the Israelites have had it easy, all things considered. Yes, they have been wandering around in a desert for forty years, and they have certainly fought in their share of battles and suffered their share of plagues, but they never wanted for their most basic necessities. None of them ever had to worry about where their next meal would come from. Once they got to the Promised Land, though, things would change.
The Israelites, who had spent the past forty years living off of handouts from God, would now need to take responsibility for their own sustenance. The nomadic society they had known in the desert would need to transform into an agrarian one because God would no longer be providing them with the mana. This is not to say that God would no longer be providing for them. Moses describes the Land of Israel as a land that “soaks up its water from the rains of heaven (Deut: 11:11).” God will still be providing for the Israelites, but they, too, must now put some work in. This will help the people gain a greater appreciation for the bountiful land that God promised to their forefathers and will help remind the Israelites that the Covenant is not a one-way street. As Moses warns them throughout the book of Deuteronomy, they must observe the mitzvot or else God will not protect them from plague or famine or invasion.
The fact that everyone’s food will not be provided directly from God every day will also cause another major change in Israelite society. There will now be people who will have to worry where their next meal is coming from. Orphans and widows. The childless elderly who have become too weak to work or someone who has been injured and cannot work. Even just someone whose field is not having a productive year. For the first time in Israelite history all the way back to Abraham, there will be people who will not know where there next meal is coming from… or how long it will be until it comes. Moses tells the people in no uncertain terms that these people must be fed and cared for. Even if the shmitah year during which all fields must lie fallow is approaching, and people are trying to ration one year’s harvest into two years’ worth of food, we are obligated to take care of the poor in our society. The reason for their poverty is not important. We are obligated to take care of them nonetheless. Even if you think that the reason for their poverty might be divine punishment for a sin they might have committed (Deut 29:28), you are still obligated to take care of them.
The first half of the book of Deuteronomy has largely been warnings to the Israelites about how they must behave upon entering the Promised Land, but now that the moment is growing closer, Moses also starts to give them new mitzvot about how to act as a society that God has designated to be a “holy nation (Ex 19:6)” and a “light unto the nations (Is. 42:6).” Chief among those is the responsibility to take care of the poor. Its presence in the middle of this week’s parshah, which mostly deals with laws about where you can and can’t perform sacrifices, teaches us that taking are of the poor is just as important as ritual rites.

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