August 10th: Re’eh
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This week, the Torah teaches us about the Sabbatical Year and the generosity God commands. In particular, there is a passage about the nature of charity and various human emotions surrounding it. In Deuteronomy 15.7-11, we read:
“If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord you God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut you hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend sufficient for whatever is needed. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give nothing. Your kinsman will then cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to your needy kinsman readily and have no regrets when you do so, for this is why the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 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 kinsman in your land.”
The latter part of the passage has what is called Deuteronomic Theology, the belief that, in exchange for following God’s mitzvot, God will reward us in this life with plenty and good health. Would that this be the case—that the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, but, even in Biblical times, the difficulties of this theology challenged our ancestors. Some scholars even say that the Book of Job was created and dramatized to address this problem: all too often, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.
Some scholars also suggest that this conundrum of injustice is the prompt that led to the Rabbinic teaching about the World to Come. Knowing that God is righteous and will reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and knowing that this is not the case in this world, the Rabbis (200 BCE – 200 CE) intuited or deducted that there must be a world after we die where the scales are balanced. Thus we have the Rabbinic belief in Olam Haba / The World to Come which has been so important in the lives of Jews, Christians and Muslims from those ancient days and into our own.
In the Midrash, the Rabbis sometimes alter words in the text—not really to change the text, but to add another lesson to the growing Torah. They may change a vowel or letter or the tense and then proceed to see where that change could lead. I would like to do the same thing to the verse before us: “Give to your needy kinsman readily and have no regrets when you do so, for this is why the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” If we were to change y’varech’cha/will bless you from future tense to the past or present perfect tense, we would have v’rach’cha/has blessed you: “Give to your needy kinsman readily and have no regrets when you do so, for THIS IS WHY GOD HAS BLESSED YOU…” Rather than promising good things if/after we are generous, this Midrashic adjustment suggests that generosity is one of the reasons God has already blessed us. We are given plenty so that we can be generous. Oh yes, we are supposed to enjoy the plenty, as we read last week in Deuteronomy 8.10, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which has been given to you.” But we are also supposed to share this bounty and satisfaction with those who are in need.
Sometimes, as we go through life, we find our progress interrupted or stymied. We cannot get on with our plans because something gets in the way. Whether it is illness, a troublesome situation, a natural disaster, or a needless distraction, we experience frustration as we are forced to take a detour. A more expansive look at life may reveal a different dynamic. Could it be that the interruption is our purpose, that these challenges may be put before us as opportunities for us to do God’s work in the world?
When my children were in middle school, the band teacher had an interesting approach. Rather than calling tests tests, he called them opportunities—opportunities to show one’s skills. At one level, it is just a semantic switch, but it can also teach us another way to look at life’s challenges. Tests or problems or roadblocks are not just problems, they are opportunities for us to develop and express skills, compassion, righteousness, and flexibility. They may be surprising, but we are blessed with potential to meet and deal with the challenges in our paths.
May we find strength and resourcefulness for the opportunities that present themselves to us, searching for the work God is hoping we shall do.