In the litany of rules and regulations found in Parashat R’eih, we read two commandments that at first glance seem to propose conflicting sentiments. The first is:
“Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Eternal your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Eternal your God has blessed you. You shall not act at all as we now act here, each [householder] of us as we please” (Deut.12:7-8; italics are mine).
The second is:
“Three times a year — on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths — all your males shall appear before the Eternal your God in the place that [God] will choose. They shall not appear before the Eternal empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you” (Deut.16:16-17; italics are mine).
In what way are these two statements potentially in tension with one another?
In the first text, Deuteronomy 12, Moses appears to admonish the Israelites for their current disorganized behavior. Many of the traditional medieval commentaries (Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides) rush to clarify this statement around instructions for specific kinds of sacrifices. But the language used in this phrase — “each [householder] of us as we please” — implies a deeper, more nefarious meaning.
The Hebrew for the phrase, ish kol hayashar b’einav, is almost identical in syntax and essentially identical in meaning to a statement that appears twice in the Book of Judges: ish hayashar b’einav ya-aseh, "every man did as he pleased” (Jud. 17:6; 21:25). This repeated statement is embedded in stories of dangerous and disorganized practices. Judges 17:6 comes in the midst of the story of Micah, a man who creates an idol out of stolen silver, fashions his own ephod and teraphim, appoints his (non-Levite) son to be priest, and then replaces his son with a wandering Levite. Judges 21:25 is the closing verse of the entire Book of Judges and concludes a story of warfare amongst the Israelite tribes. This is combined with a decision to kill all of the men in Jabesh-gilead, abduct their virgin women, and marry the women off to the Benjaminites in order to dilute a regretted vow that no man from Northern Israel should marry a Benjaminite. In context, then, these two iterations of “every man [householder] did as he pleased,” clearly suggest a negative association with those words; they even point toward anarchy.
We can also read Deuteronomy 12:8 as a reproach against the backdrop of one of Deuteronomy’s dominant precepts — centralization. Just three verses earlier, in Deuteronomy 12:5, Moses reminds the Israelites to, “look only to the site that the Eternal your God will choose amidst all your tribes as God's habitation, to establish the divine name there. There you are to go.” Clearly then, “you shall not act at all as we now act here, each [householder] of us as we please,” is a plea toward conformity, consistency, and compliance.
Deuteronomy 16:17 introduces a different concept. While still in the realm of sacrifice and offerings, Moses here encourages and commands the Israelites to individualize. “They shall not appear before the Eternal empty-handed, but each with his own gift,” Moses demands, “according to the blessing that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you.” Here, Rashi and S’forno explain the customization in relation to relative wealth:
"One who has a large household and great possessions brings many burnt offerings... " (Rashi on Deut.16:17).
"Our sages have long ago postulated that even the most generously inclined person should not give away more than one fifth of his wealth [K’tubot 50]." (S’forno on Deut. 16:17).
Mishnah Chagigah 1:5 explains this in greater detail:
"One who has many dependents and few assets, should bring many peace offerings and few burnt offerings. [One who has] many assets and few dependents, should bring many burnt offerings and few peace offerings. [If one has] few of both, of him it is stated: A ma-ah of silver and two pieces of silver. [If one has] many of both, of him it is stated: 'Each man as he is able…' "
While the Mishnah here imagines many unique possibilities for a variety of different individuals, the notion is distinct: each individual must customize.
Here is where the potential tension arises between the two verses. How can the Israelites both conform — rejecting the practice of “each [householder] of us as we please” — and personalize — embracing the charge to appear, “each with his own gift?”
A Balance of Self-Expression
If we move beyond the framework of sacrifice, we can imagine these two verses as comments on a continuum of self-expression. Deuteronomy 12:8 represents complete personal anarchy: everyone does as he or she pleases. On the other hand, Deuteronomy 16:17 represents healthy self-actualization: each person brings his or her own gift. In the chronology of Parashat R’eih, Moses is asking the Israelite people to move from the former to the latter. This request helps the people realize their shifting identity as they prepare to enter their new and sovereign home in the Land of Israel. This people began their journey as slaves, blind to selfhood. Together they have spent the last forty years as wanderers and explorers, drenched in liminality and constantly testing the boundaries of who they are. As a people in transition, they have often created anarchy in pursuit of identity. And now, Moses says, the time has come to evolve toward self-realization; in the promised safety of a perpetual home, the people must both maintain community norms and allow for constructive differentiation.
On this Shabbat of Parashat R’eih, we also mark Rosh Chodesh Elul — the moment we turn toward deep and directed introspection and cheshbon hanefesh, the “accounting of our soul.” As we engage in this personal and holy project, may we learn to balance the anarchy of our souls with the blessing of the gifts we bring.
Cantor Sacks beautifully outlines the tension in Parashat R’eih between collectivism and individuality, and urges us to balance the two. It’s no easy task, but we can aid ourselves by noticing the different cultural values around us and how they might affect these two divergent impulses.
American culture has tilted in favor of individualism since the very birth of our nation. From the Hartford Convention of 1815 to the Nullification Crisis of 1832 to the Civil War in 1861, all the way down to the Calexit movement of 2018, we have maintained our federal union despite a deep-seated instinct to the contrary. We are attracted to heroes like the Lone Ranger, Rambo, and Wolverine who are defined by their existence outside of community. And, of course, the ethos by which settlers left their families in search of new opportunity is still alive and well today. According to the New York Times, those who are more highly educated and successful are more likely to live farther away from their parents than those who are not (Q. Bui and C. C.Miller, “The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles from Mom,” NYT, Dec. 23, 2015). We are a country built by pioneers and immigrants whose success became legend, specifically because it was often accomplished against the odds of isolation. Americans do form community, but seemingly with a distinct undercurrent of skepticism that we might be better off on our own.
Judaism, however, has worked strenuously for over two thousand years to remind us that coexistence is essential to our survival, and we find a beautiful teaching to that effect in Parashat R’eih. Seeking to elevate human dignity and regulate against self-mutilating mourning practices, our portion instructs: “You are children of the Eternal your God. You shall not gash yourselves… because of the dead” (Deut. 14:1). It’s an ancient idea that would seemingly have little relevance for modern times, but the Sages of the Talmud knew otherwise.
Reish Lakish taught: “Read the verse lo titgod’du [you shall not gash] to mean ‘Do not form separate groups’ [based on a word play between titgod’du, ‘gash,’ and g’dud, ‘assembly’]” (Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 13b).
Reish Lakish, the former highway bandit and gladiator turned rabbi, perhaps understood better than most the value of stable relationships in a cohesive society. Like Reish Lakish, my mother endured her share of storms in life (often in conflicts of gladiatorial scale with those around her) but she found comfort in Jewish teachings encouraging human companionship. A favorite teaching of hers was from Rabbi Hillel: “Do not withdraw yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5), and I remember a story she told me about it when I was a child.
A man suffered the loss of a parent, so Hillel went to visit him. When he arrived at the man’s house, he found him all alone, sitting beside a small fire. “Where is the minyan for shiva?” Hillel asked. “I sent them away,” the mourner replied, “to be alone in my grief.” Hillel removed an ember from the fire and set it aside. “You may seek comfort in solitude,” he said, “but just as this ember is only kept alight by its neighbors, so too are you only kept alight by yours.” The next day, the mourner accepted the minyan to help him recite Kaddish for his parent.
Our mortal instincts may tempt us with separation, but inside each of us is a divine spark that yearns for connection. As Cantor Sacks reminds us, Judaism’s emphasis on community and relationship is at the very core of our efforts to focus on t’shuvah, the return to a better version of ourselves, during this season of Elul. Our individuality is a unique gift from God and, like our physical bodies in the parashah, is therefore deserving of respect. We must, however, respect it in the broader conversation of community. We can only truly know God and carry out the sacred task of tikkun olam when we are in relationship with those around us, as difficult as that may sometimes be.
R’eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,417–50; Revised Edition, pp. 1,255–89
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 1,115–40
Third Haftarah of Consolation, Isa.54:11–55:5; The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,604–06; Revised Edition, pp. 1,290–91
Machar Chodesh, I Sam. 20:18-42; pp. 1,687-89; Revised Edition pp. 1,495-97; or
Rosh Chodesh, Isa. 66:1-13, 23; pp. 1,684-86; Revised Edition, pp. 1,492-94