Parashat R'eih contains a remarkable richness of diverse biblical materials. It opens with the "blessing and curse" that God sets before the people, based on their choice of following or disobeying the commandments (Deuteronomy 11:26–32). A concern with idolatry permeates the following passages. Chapter 12 states the commandments, the first of which is to obliterate all expressions of idolatry and only to sacrifice and celebrate at "the site that the Eternal your God will choose" (Deuteronomy 12:5). The test for a false prophet and the investigation and punishment of a city suspected of having gone astray after idolatry continue the same theme in chapter 13. Chapter 14 shifts to other subjects: the prohibition against self-mutilation, the biblical basis of the laws of kashrut, tithing so that the Levite, the "stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlement shall come and eat their fill" (Deuteronomy 14:29). Remission of debts in the seventh year, care of the poor, freeing of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, and the dedication of the firstborn of cattle and flock to God are the subjects of chapter 15. Finally, chapter 16 provides the command for the Pilgrimage Festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
So much of this parashah emphasizes the need for difference between the Israelites and their neighbors. Yet two themes stand out that relate specifically to internal matters of the community: (1) the one central place of worship and (2) care for the poor. How the biblical authors bring these themes to our consciousness is a tribute to their rhetorical skill and the diversity of literary methods they employ. Scattered throughout chapters 12, 14, 15, and 16, the Hebrew phrase hamakom asher yivchar Adonai Elohecha, (Deuteronomy 12:18), "the place that the Eternal your God will choose," or variations thereof occur at least fifteen times. Though the author of Deuteronomy doesn't explicitly state the name of "the place," traditional Jewish commentators and modern scholars have identified it as Jerusalem and have noted that the purpose of these references is to centralize the cult in the Temple there. In general, the centralization of the cult has been viewed as a political dimension of the religious program to end local worship and its possible idolatrous implications, or the opposite—the religious face of political decisions. There is another dimension of this effort that is equally important: the need to transfer the identification of "the Eternal" as a desert God associated with Mount Sinai to Jerusalem, Mount Zion, and the Temple.
The repetition of the Hebrew phrase indicating God's choice over and over again raises a simple question: why? Biblical scholars have suggested at least two possibilities: repetition would (1) help obliterate the memory of the Canaanite gods such as El Elyon (a Canaanite deity that gets merged with the Eternal) and Shalem, which are associated with Jerusalem prior to King David's conquest of the city, or (2) provide—through a decision of God—a conceptual alternative for theophany, the notion of a self-revelation of deity associated with a specific place.
A typical example of theophany is the story of the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1–6); the site, even the ground, becomes holy because God self-revealed there to Moses, as we read in Exodus 3:5, ‘"Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!'" Experiences similar to the Burning Bush caused the ancients to revere the place—and theophany was not the original experience of the Israelites in Jerusalem. The biblical authors replaced theophany with rhetorical repetition and added one more dimension—pilgrimage—as a practice to ensure that Jerusalem, Mount Zion, and the Temple would be embedded in the minds of the Israelites as the people's single sacred site.
In contrast to the technique of repetition, the commandment to provide for the poor is made in short paragraphs that end with a statement so true, so real, so powerful, that it immediately embeds itself in our minds: "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land" (Deuteronomy 15:11).
This verse takes on even greater meaning when it is placed in the context of the passage in which it is found. Traditional commentators long ago pointed out a difficulty in our text in which the previous section begins: "There shall be no needy among you—since the Eternal your God will bless you in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed the Eternal your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day" (Deuteronomy 15:4–5).
Yet a few verses later we find, "If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin" (Deuteronomy 15:7).
We are long past the theological position that "heeding" will automatically bring blessing and recognize that whatever the biblical authors might have meant by the "ifs" of verses 4,5, and 7, they captured the truth as we experience it in verse 11. To repeat, "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land" (Deuteronomy 15:11).
And we understand that the phrase "in your land" refers not just to the Land and State of Israel, or to wherever Jews live, but to wherever human beings who are poor or needy live.
The authors of our parashah conveyed their messages through repetition and accumulation and single powerful statements. Whatever the literary technique, ultimately we have to decide whether or not to pay attention. Our Torah portion opens and we conclude with these words: "See, this day I set before your blessing and curse" (Deuteronomy 11:26). Shall we too establish a modern, Reform practice of pilgrimage to remind ourselves of our religious connection to the Land of Israel? Shall we continue to be concerned about the poor and the needy among us, even in a very negative economy? The burden of choice is ours.
Rabbi Lewis M. Barth is professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.