Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Re'ah

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Choosing Life

By Michael Chessen

     Deuteronomy's alternate name, Mishne Torah (the repetition of the Torah) seems to be applicable primarily because of its first three readings. Over the course of these, Moses has reviewed the entire history of the "generation of the desert". In doing so, however, he has not merely "retold" previously recorded narratives, but the review's order, emphasis, and of course Moses' added commentaries all serve to deepen our understanding of all that has thus far transpired in the history of the Jewish people.

     Upon our having gained this deeper understanding and broader perspective, the Torah can now in the reading of "Re'eh" ask us to make what amounts to an "informed" choice. This choice is essentially what God had already previously presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. While they had indeed been given the power of free will, primordial man and woman had no problem whatsoever in obeying the word of God; they would have as soon intentionally done otherwise as they would have bashed their heads against a rock. Their "natural" understanding of "where their bread was buttered" persisted until the serpent tricked them into partaking of the forbidden fruit. Only after this were their eyes "opened" and they gained an understanding of the concept of sin.

     After having been able to "see" during the course of nearly all of the Torah, the reading of Re'eh turns to us and asks us to carefully focus and "choose life". For we now are capable of returning to Adam and Eve's choice with their original sense of "natural" understanding(re-gained through our Torah study); this "learned" understanding in turn "insulates" us and protects us from being led astray.

     Before turning to the teaching of laws and commandments, the Torah here warns us against possibly becoming "serpents" against ourselves with the famous exhortation to neither add to nor diminish from the commandments. (Deut. 13:1) Just as the serpent diminished from Adam and Eve's observance of the prohibition of eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge by adding that they were also not to touch it(and when the addition proved superfluous the base commandment appeared also to be so), individuals are liable to "weigh down" their "spiritual vehicles"(of Torah observance) with "excess baggage", i.e., superfluous additions of observance. This is a concept that can take many different forms of expression. A modern instance of failing to "choose life" could be that of a smoker who rationalizes that health risks from smoking can be disregarded since there are studies citing health risks from countless sources. The false reasoning here would be "if everything is unhealthy than nothing is".

     The Torah helps us to gain the proper perspective and choose life through its comprehensive prescription of the commandments. It seems only proper that the reading of Re'eh concludes with the commandments involving the three pilgrimage festivals. Leaving one's home three times a year in order to bring offerings to the Holy Temple certainly immersed an individual in "the great happiness involved in fulfilling a commandment". May we soon come to again experience such joy.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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