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3 principals for Elul - The Weekly Shiur - Re'eh 5779

Welcome. Thank you so much for hosting me at Stern College.

This shiur began in Jerusalem three years ago, with a young group of volunteers. Now it will take place, b"h, here in New York, in Manhattan.

Thank you for the hospitality. The purpose of this shiur is very simple: To make a basic acquaintance with the parasha (The weekly Torah portion) and with ourselves.  You are all invited to react (in Jerusalem, the most beautiful parts of the shiur were reactions to the parasha sent from you…) and, of course, to pass along requests for dedications.

The weekly parasha is Re’eh (See). Typically, this parasha is read before Rosh Chodesh Elul, before the new month of Elul, which is the case this year.Rosh Chodesh Elul will fall on Shabbat (Saturday) and Sunday.

Following a series of Torah portions that contained few mitzvot – as if designed especially for August, when yeshivas are not in session and everyone goes camping – Now there is an appearance, all at once, of 55 mitvot (18 positive and 35 negative) in parashat Re’eh.

The subjects in this Torah portion include: False prophets, the three רגלים, tzedakah, laws of kashrut and more.

However, we will not occupy ourselves with details of the mitzvot here.  Instead, we will “zoom out” for a bird’s eye view and ask: What are the “keywords”, the guiding words, in the parasha? These words teach us three principles. These principles always hold true, but are especially relevant as we enter the month of Elul.

So, what are these three keywords and what are the messages they convey?

1. Choice

The verb that denotes choice or choosing (root letters in Hebrew are ר.ח.ב) appears in this parasha 17 times, while in the entire Bible this verb appears 170 times. In other words, we have here 10% of all the “choosing” in the Bible. Within Sefer Devarim (the book of Deuteronomy), our Torah portion is also exceptional since it includes more than half of the times that “choosing” is mentioned. Re’eh is a parasha of choosing.

Most of the instances in this Torah portion where choosing is mentioned involve the Land of Israel – the land of choice, the chosen land.  “The place that Hashem (G-d) will choose” are words that we read again and again, in reference to the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Holy Temple. Yet none of these places are mentioned specifically in order to reinforce the message of choice.

Hashem’s choosing is mentioned not only in regard to the Land of Israel, but in regard to the people of Israel, to us as a nation, too:

“Because you are a holy nation to Hashem your G-d, and He chose you to be His treasured people from among all the nations on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 14:2)

Hashem's chose the Land and the people of Israel – but what about us? In return, we, His people, need to choose Him and the Land of Israel, too. And here it is worth noting that even where choice is not mentioned specifically in our parasha, the principle of choice is abundantly in evidence: See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)

This passage that opens our parasha reflects a worldview, a super-principle of elemental force. Many commentators, over the millennia, have lingered at great length over this passage so we, too, will linger over it for a little while:

“See” is an extraordinary form of address: Look. See. Watch. This is a higher level than “hearing". Seeing is a higher form of recognition. It has nothing to do with what other people told you or what you read. Only through deep desire can you reach the level of being truly able to see.

How many different things did we see this morning? We saw with our own eyes dishes in the sink, the nonsense on our Facebook feed, the billboards on the side of the road when the traffic jammed. Sights without end.

But there is something that we did not see despite its very real presence: We did not see the significance of our actions. We did not see the power of our correct choices, of our good deeds, of our fulfilled divine commandments, of the blessings that we blessed.

There are many things that we think, hear, or understand, but they remain cloudy, up in our heads. They are not clearly visible like something that we can see. Furthermore, instead of seeing the good in what we do, we may see the opposite. Sometimes, the negative things seem beautiful and shiny and attractive (commercials…) while the positive things seem gray.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this Torah portion calls upon us to pay attention to what we see and to know that there is a level where it is possible “to see” clearly the significance of our positive actions. If only we could ascend to this level. The great tzadikim who reached this level acquired the ability to always see the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.

How appropriate, during summer vacation, is this call to see meaning in all of our actions. How many numerous little transparent things, seemingly insignificant, do all of us do at this time of year? How many little tasks of devotion do we perform: standing in line, sitting in a traffic jam, finding a babysitter for our kids, allowing them to sleep late. Day and night, breakfast and lunch became one and the same. One day my kids asked, “Mom, what meal is this? Breakfast? Lunch?”. If only we could see in our small, gray, and routine daily tasks the enormous value and blessing that they hold.

Parents, grandpas and grandmas, nieces and nephews, sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, aunts and uncles, bosses who host children in their offices, all contribute to this effort of making our everyday routine into something special.

In Israel, I saw children who came to work with their parents: with a father who works as a bus driver, or with a parent who works in a bank, or in a newsroom.  (I hope that in the nuclear reactor in Dimona children were not brought to work)…

"See", ראה: What you do is important. You are building your family and the entire future of the Jewish people. Yet, still, we fail to appreciate all that we do. Since we do not see immediate results, we tend to devalue our deeds.

Let’s continue with another important aspect of choice, the second verse: The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today.”  (Deuteronomy 11:27)

Pay attention how these words – “the blessing that you will heed” – are interpreted by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: “It does not say ‘if you obey’ but rather ‘that (or when) you obey’; keeping the divine commandments is in itself the blessing. The blessing does not come later, following obedience, but rather begins to take shape the moment obedience to the mitzva is chosen and the mitzvah is kept. The spiritual and ethical act of faithfulness to the Torah is, in itself, a blessing upon our entire existence and with every mitzvah that is performed we bring blessing upon ourselves.”

Imagine you were told that if you kept Shabbat all sorts of good things would happen to you. But Shabbat, by its very nature, is good. Whoever keeps Shabbat does not need convincing that, by doing so, blessing will come. Shabbat, in and of itself, is a blessing.

Let’s return to the matter of choice. It appears to me that one of the problems of our age is that choice is limited. The media create the conversations and “compel” us to choose among limited options.  Here’s one example. I am a religious Jewish woman.  Often, I feel am being forced to choose between Iran – “Are you conservative?  Religious?  Are you in Teheran? Do you want a country with religious laws like Iran?” – and Los Angeles –  “You are not Iran? Wonderful. You are one of us.  Come to Los Angeles with its liberal lifestyle, without limitations, where everything is permitted.”

But choice is not confined to these two options. That’s fake. Between Teheran and Los Angeles there is one other option and its name is Jerusalem.

In Israel, there are many arguments between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. This is another false representation of reality. The largest group of Israelis (39%) consider themselves “traditional,” but they will never bring a traditional Jew on television where stormy interactions are sought. They will always choose an extreme ultra-Orthodox and an extreme secular Jew to face off against each other. By the way, I do not go along with the traditional sector. I think that halacha (Torah law) is mandatory but, in any event, more than two options should be presented since the truth is more complex than how it is portrayed in the media.

Similarly, regarding Judaism in America, we in Israel hear so much about the orthodox and the reform, while “the unaffiliated” are the largest group. They are not attached to anything and do not participate in any argument, yet they represent the vast majority of American Jews.

We need to expand upon our possible choices. We need to think bigger and broader. This makes sense both ideologically and personally in relation to our lives. We aspire to reach new places in our souls, to develop new qualities, to be better than we are, to become better versions of ourselves. Elul is the time to choose, but in order to do so we need to find the freedom to fully express and explore our deepest longings as Jews.

2. Eating

The three letter root for eating (א.כ.ל) appears in our parasha 42 (!) times, more than half the times that it appears in the entire book of Deuteronomy. It’s of interest that, after so many years of eating מן, and of altercations surrounding food (as well as problems concerning water, drinking, and various other complaints of the Children of Israel along the way), last minute instructions before entering the Land of Israel include many mitzvot that have to do with eating.

Personally, I had to work hard in order to receive an American visa due to its many conditions. An Israeli visa has other conditions, and one of them is: “eat properly”. It’s not only healthy, nutritious, and tasty food that is of concern, but something deeper.  Let’s begin with a positive command: “And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you..” (Deuteronomy 12:7)

But there is also a negative command: “You shall not eat it (animal blood), in order that it be good for you, and for your children after you, when you do what is proper in the eyes of the Lord.”  Deuteronomy 12:25)

One of the taboo symbols of Jewish culture appears later in our parasha: “And the pig, because it has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You shall neither eat of their flesh nor touch their carcass..” (Deuteronomy 14:8)

The Maimonides wrote the Yad HaHazaka (Mishneh Torah), which includes fourteen books.  Each book received a name, and one of the books he called “Book of Holiness.” What appears there? “Laws of Forbidden Intercourse,” “Laws of Forbidden Foods,” and “Laws of Ritual Slaughter.” 

Here is the explanation for this, in Rambam’s language: “Since in these two matters G-d sanctified us and separated us from the other nations.” Thus he defines holiness, based on these two matters.

Therefore, in these two areas – relations between him and her and eating – we have something in common with animals. Neither a whale nor a dog can pray, or go to the Holy Temple, but both of them eat and procreate. Exactly for that reason the divine Torah comes along and emphasizes: It is precisely in these two areas that we need to discover the image of G-d in human beings and to sanctify them. It’s difficult to sanctify eating but the Torah asks us to pay special attention to doing so, especially among the generation entering the Land of Israel.

Let’s begin with the food industry: We live at a time when we are prevailed upon to eat not what we need and, whatever we eat, not in the proper quantity. I once worked in an advertising agency and I want to tell you just one detail: There are beautiful advertisements for corn flakes in a bowl of milk. Did you notice that those corn flakes never sink? For us, they always sink into the milk and dissolve. But here’s a little secret: that’s not milk, it’s shampoo. Really. Conditioner. They pour out some white conditioner, put corn flakes on top, and so the flakes just stay there. Yuck?  איחס? That yuck causes you to buy products. And this is just one very small example.

Let’s continue: I remember my first Shabbat meal. I did not grow up in a religious home and was invited by a family that kept Shabbat. It took me time to understand why they were not making much progress in the meal. They sit next to the table, and sit, and sit… What’s the deal? During the course of the meal I understood: it’s about what’s happening right then and there. Nothing is happening outside. They’re not eating in order to finish so they can go somewhere else. The food and the family get together and the blessings and the songs – that’s the reason for the gathering. I truly saw for the first time how eating is sanctified.

The holiness of eating can also be expressed in an ordinary visit to a restaurant: First of all, you are eating kosher. That has an influence on everything. You bless before you eat, and after, and there may also be words of Torah, meaningful conversation, no eating more than you need, no being seduced by lies of the food industry.

And of course, to receive from the food strength to do good deeds.  If we eat and from the energy provided by the food we perform positive actions, we sanctify eating.

In our homes, the very best night of the year is the night of the Seder. We could have easily made the Exodus from Egypt into a day devoted to intensive study of the meaning of freedom, slavery, and values. But on this night we don’t talk about values, we eat values. We don’t speak about freedom, we drink freedom. We don’t philosophize about the Exodus from Egypt, we sing it, with crumbs of matzot and drops of wine.

There are commentators who say that our sole purpose in this world is to refine the act of eating. Indeed, how did it all begin? Why are we here today, in the middle of Manhattan, and not in the Garden of Eden? Because of the first sin, a sin associated with eating. "And the Lord God commanded man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

The first time that “He commanded,” when a divine commandment was issued, was a restriction associated with the desire to eat, and we failed, we did not succeed. So now we need to refine the act of eating and return to the Garden of Eden that we lost.

The book of Deuteronomy is especially relevant to our own time: It warns us about the affluent generation. The book continually reminds us “Don’t forget”, “Remember”, in order that we should not forget the desert or the "desert consciousness" even when we are living in comfort.

In Jerusalem, I recently studied with a speech therapist by the name of Dora Uchikovsky. At the end of one of our sessions, I asked her where she grew up and I was amazed to discover the story hidden inside a Jerusalem woman, an “ordinary” new immigrant. She began to speak and I took notes, with increasing appreciation:

“I was born in Kiev. the greatest story from our childhood concerns Pesach. For possessing matzos, the K.G.B. could send you to jail and mother, therefore, would receive matzos already in January, four months early. We would listen for a certain tapping on the window, it was very exciting. Men from the underground would tap, they would bring matzos in a pillow cover, and mother would hide them for months in a clothes closet, until Seder night.  In 1990, we made aliyah, exactly on Rosh HaShana.  My mother did not believe it was possible to celebrate without being afraid.”

Wow. Where’s Dora and where are we? Did anyone here ever keep matzah for four months? What kind of taste do they have after four months of waiting, and what kind of taste do they have after selecting them from ten different types at the supermarket? It’s hard for us to get excited about the act of eating kosher, or about a mitzva of eating.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote: "The real test of a nation is not if it can survive a crisi, but if it can survive the lack of a crisis. Can it stay strong during times of ease and plenty, power and prestige?".

On the other hand, we merited in our generation to partake of a special kind of eating: eating in the Land of Israel. There are many mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael that are centered around eating, especially fruits. Agricultural mitzvot. We call them “mitzvot dependent on the Land of Israel” and there are commentators who say that Moshe Rabeinu wanted so much to enter the Land of Israel – in order to eat from her fruits after fulfilling all of these mitzvot. Some say “mitzvot dependent on the land” but I once saw the expression “land dependent on the mitzvot.”

3. Joy and the Life of a Pauper

Let’s continue. Now we have a combination of two words that appear to contradict one another: What is joy doing with poverty? What’s joyful about paupers?

In fact, the word “pauper”, אביון, appears six times in our parasha out of a total of seven times in the whole book of Deuteronomy and 61 times in the entire Bible. That is to say, certainly the presence of this word over and over again is telling us something. This word comes along with the word joy, which also appears six times in the parasha out of the ten times total that it appears in the book of Deuteronomy. By the way, both of these words are closely associated with the word for eating, which we already discussed. There is definitely a connection between eating, joy, and poor people.

Not only does the word “pauper” appear frequently, but several other words from the same word family and general category of meaning are often found in this book. The word מעשר appears five times in this parasha out of the seven times it is found in the book of Deuteronomy, “donation” נדבה appears three times out of its four mentions in this book, “orphan” and “widow” each appear three times, and “Levi” seven times.  What is all this telling us?

Let’s look at several example of how these combine with one another:

And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite who is within your cities, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.  (Deuteronomy 12:12)

But you shall eat them before the Lord, your God, in the place the Lord, your God, will choose you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, and the Levite who is in your cities, and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God, in all your endeavors. (Deut. 12:18)

And you shall rejoice in your Festival-you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities. Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy. (Deuteronomy 16:14-15)

We understand the principle: Again and again joy is experienced through eating in partnership with someone in need. To give from what you have to someone who does not have is the greatest joy. Through the following equation, Rashi explains the joy of giving through its tangible benefits: “The Levite, the convert, the orphan, and the widow – these four of Mine opposite the four of yours: your son and your daughter, your man-servant and your maid-servant. If you bring joy to Mine, I bring joy to yours.” The Levite, the convert, the orphan, and the widow, they are “His.”  They belong to Hashem. They are as close to Him as your son and daughter are close to you. If you make “His” happy, He will make yours happy. Yes, to that extent.

This is a new concept of joy: I am not joyful the more I attain, the more I succeed, the more I acquire, the more I do. Rather, the more I give, the more I share, the more I volunteer, the more joyful I am.  To get outside of ourselves brings the greatest joy. To cease to put ourselves in the center.

Recently I decided to check all my E-mails accounts. Hundreds of emails were answered, erased, or attended to in a proper way (This also brings a lot of joy, by the way: "If you bring joy to your email, I will bring joy to you"…).  I found a surprising email that suggested that I purchase “likes”. I knew there was such an industry but I had never encountered it up close, so transparent and blunt: Pay and you will get more likes. What does that say about a society, where you can buy love?  What kind of love is this? How can this bring me joy if I know it is bought and artificial? I gaze with satisfaction upon at my account: “I have a thousand likes!” and forget that I bought them? Can this bring joy?

The answer in our parasha is clear: Don’t go there for true joy and satisfaction, that’s not the direction. Bring joy to the VIP club of Hashem and you will automatically experience more joy yourself.


Let's summarize. We spoke about three messages in this week’s parasha as we approach the month of Elul:

May we merit to make the right choices and to expand the possibilities for choosing things we have yet to dream or imagine;

May we eat what we need but no more than we need, and that we foster a holy Jewish culture of eating;

And May we merit true joy, knowing the path to finding it must pass through those who are in need.

Thanks so much to all of you. We will meet again, b"h, next week. Chodesh tov, have a good month.


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