Telephone Torah Study: Blessing and Curse


God sets before the Israelites the choice between blessing and curse in this week’s Torah portion, R’eih (Deut. 11:26-16:17). Join in on the conference call, Thursday 4-5pm- please dial 702-851-4044, when prompted punch in 2, then our pass code 22252#.

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Suggested Reading

In ‘Observe What I Enjoin Upon You,’ Gregg Drinkwater discusses what the verse – Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you; neither add to it nor take away from it (Deut. 13:1) – means to LGBT Jews.

In the opening lines of Parashat Re’eh, Moses shares both a blessing and a curse with the Israelites. “The blessing: if you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I command you today. And the curse: if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). Fair enough. Moses seems to be offering a perfectly reasonable and clear proposition—one with which most Jews can feel comfortable, whatever variety of Judaism they follow.

But what does “obey the commandments” actually mean? Who is blessed and who is cursed? For Orthodox Jews, to “obey the commandments” means keeping all of the 613 mitzvot(commandments) found in the Torah, following halacha (Jewish law) essentially to the letter, and living a life embedded in Jewish tradition. For most progressive Jews (Reform, Liberal, Conservative, etc.), though, to “obey the commandments” is interpreted a bit differently. Most progressive Jews are deeply committed to Jewish tradition and the Torah, but approach the mitzvot and Jewish law with varying degrees of skepticism and modification. In some cases, progressive Jews are comfortable with outright rejection of those precepts which seem to violate competing ethical standards or which don’t easily conform to the realities of contemporary society. All of us understand what it means to “obey the commandments” from our own perspective, as we each adhere to our own Jewish journeys. The followers of the various Jewish movements, then, all feel eligible for the blessing, and reserve Moses’ curse for someone else, somewhere else. We are all Lake Wobegon Jews – each of us above average. So far, so good.

We continue in our parasha, to verse 13:1, “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” Now we have a problem. What does it mean when Moses tells us that we should “neither add to it nor take away from it”? Does this simply mean that we can’t edit the Torah by adding or subtracting verses? What about the Oral Law? Is that included when Moses references “that which I enjoin upon you”? Halacha? Tradition? Everything? Nothing?

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Torah Passage of the Week

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse; blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God Adonai that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of your God Adonai, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When your God Adonai brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. –Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah –near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh. (Deut. 11:26-30)

Portion Summary

Moses told the Israelites that he set before them blessing and curse: blessing if they obeyed God’s commandments and curse if they did not obey but turned away to follow other gods.Moses directed that when God brought them into the land, they were to pronounce the blessings at Mount Gerizim and the curses at Mount Ebal. Moses instructed the Israelites in the laws that they were to observe in the land: They were to destroy all the sites at which the residents worshiped their gods. They were not to worship God as the land’s residents had worshiped their gods, but to look only to the site that God would choose. There they were to bring their offerings and feast before God, happy in all God’s blessings.

Moses warned the Israelites not to sacrifice burnt offerings in any place, but only in the place that God would choose. But whenever they desired, they could slaughter and eat meat in any of their settlements, so long as they did not consume the blood, which they were to pour on the ground. They were not, however, to consume in their settlements their tithes, firstlings, vow offerings, freewill offerings, or contributions; these they were to consume along with their children, slaves, and local Levites in the place that God would choose. Moses made clear that even as God gave the Israelites more land, they could eat meat in their settlements, so long as they did not consume the blood, and so long as they brought their offerings to the place that God would show them.

Moses warned them against being lured into the ways of the residents of the land, and against inquiring about their gods, for the residents performed for their gods every abhorrent act that God detested, even offering up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. Moses warned the Israelites carefully to observe only that which he enjoined upon them, neither adding to it nor taking away from it. Moses instructed that if a prophet appeared before the Israelites and gave them a sign or a portent and urged them to worship another god, even if the sign or portent came true, they were not to heed the words of that prophet, but put the offender to death. Moses instructed that if a brother, son, daughter, wife, or close friend enticed one in secret to worship other gods, the Israelites were to show no pity, but stone the offender to death.

Moses instructed that if the Israelites heard that some scoundrels had subverted the inhabitants of a town to worship other gods, the Israelites were to investigate thoroughly, and if they found it true, they were to destroy the inhabitants and the cattle of that town, burning the town and everything in it.

Moses prohibited the Israelites from gashing themselves or shaving the front of their heads because of the dead. Moses prohibited the Israelites from eating anything abhorrent. Among land animals, they could eat ox, sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, roebuck, wild goat, ibex, antelope, mountain sheep, and any other animal that has true hoofs that are cleft in two and chews cud. But the Israelites were not to eat or touch the carcasses of camel, hare, daman, or swine. Moses instructed that of animals that live in water, the Israelites could eat anything that has fins and scales, but nothing else.

Moses instructed that the Israelites could eat any clean bird, but could not eat eagle, vulture, black vulture, kite, falcon, buzzard, raven, ostrich, nighthawk, sea gull, hawk, owl, pelican, bustard, cormorant, stork, heron, hoopoe, or bat. They could not eat any winged swarming things. They could not eat anything that had died a natural death, but they could give it to the stranger or you sell it to a foreigner. They could not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Moses instructed that the Israelites were to set aside every year a tenth part of their harvest. They were to consume the tithes of their new grain, wine, and oil, and the firstlings of their herds and flocks, in the presence of God in the place where God would choose. If the distance was too great, they could convert the tithes or firstlings into money, take the proceeds to the place that God had chosen, and spend the money and feast there. They were not to neglect the Levite in their community, for the Levites had no hereditary portion of land. Moses instructed that every third year, the Israelites were to take the full tithe, but leave it within their settlements, and the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow in their settlements could come and eat.

Moses instructed that every seventh year, the Israelites were to remit debts from fellow Israelites, although they could continue to dun foreigners. There would be no needy among them if only they kept all God’s laws, for God would bless them. Moses instructed that if one of their kinsmen fell into need, the Israelites were not to harden their hearts, but were to open their hands and lend what the kinsman needed. The Israelites were not to harbor the base thought that the year of remission was approaching and not lend, but they were to lend readily to their kinsman, for in return God would bless them in all their efforts.

Moses instructed that if a fellow Hebrew was sold into servitude, the Hebrew slave would serve six years, and in the seventh year go free. When the master set the slave free, the master was to give the former slave parting gifts. Should the slave tell the master that the slave did not want to leave, the master was to take an awl and put it through the slave’s ear into the door, and the slave was to become the master’s slave in perpetuity.

Moses instructed that the Israelites were to consecrate to God all male firstlings born in their herds and flocks and eat them with their household in the place that God would choose. If such an animal had a defect, the Israelites were not to sacrifice it, but eat it in their settlements, as long as they poured out its blood on the ground. Moses instructed the Israelites to observe Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Three times a year, on those three Festivals, all Israelite men were to appear in the place that God would choose, each with his own gift, according to the blessing that God had bestowed upon him.

Written by Yanir Dekel on Aug 19, 2014 in Telephone Torah Study - No Comments

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