Parashat Re’eh: No. You Need to Show Up
Those of you who know me know that I like going to rock concerts, sometimes in mass stadiums. This year alone on the heels of COVID I think I have attended 10 concerts. In a recent conversation with my wife, she questioned the value of spending all this money, standing in the middle of huge crowds, sweating in outdoor amphitheaters, and dealing with getting there and back. (Yes, I have traveled to see many bands.) She noted that I could just as easily stream a concert online with better quality sound. This is absolutely true, but that is not the reason I go. I am not going to simply listen to the music. I am going to experience a gathering of music with thousands upon thousands of people! It is not just to hear music, but to feel the music and drown in a sea of sound, light, and people. In essence, the context makes all the difference. (Also, in my next life I am a member of a rock n’ roll band, but that is a subject for another time.)
If this is true regarding a ‘secular’ gathering such as a rock concert, this should certainly be true with a spiritual gathering. Our parashah emphasizes one dominant theme: once settled in the Land of Israel we are commanded to gather ‘in the place which God will choose’, bamakom asher yivchar Hashem. Ultimately, this ‘place of God’s choosing’ became the Temple in Jerusalem, but the absolute need for people to come together not just in spirit, but in body, is a fundamental teaching. However, unlike a rock concert, which only demands I come and experience, the spiritual gathering demands much more. Whether for pilgrimage holidays, bringing peace offering or voluntary offerings, or sharing with the poor and the Levites, or bringing a ‘second tithe’ (ma’aser sheni), the Torah is adamant that the people must gather together on a consistent schedule and at a certain place. We are not simply customers but participate in the creation of the experience itself.
This week’s parashah begins Moses’s recounting of many of the mitzvot. However, he does not speak of all mitzvot, but in general those commandments that model the proper social order reflective of ethical and religious values. His oration of the commandments begins with the centrality of the need for the people to come together in person at ‘the appointed place’. I would like to focus on this critical idea, examining how embodied gatherings are critical to the body politic, both through sensitizing us not only to our relationships with the Divine, but no less significantly to our relationships with one another. Our parashah underscores that to be a Jew is ultimately to live in relationships, and we cannot do that from our homes.
Moses begins his oration with stating that one should bring their burnt offerings and their peace offerings to a specific place, and not from where you are. He references a period in which people would create their own altars and sacrifice to God, ‘doing whatever is right in their eyes’ (12:11). In other words, if I wanted to make a sacrifice- the ancient form of worship, I have a perfectly good altar in my backyard. It is easier and more convenient. To this the Torah unemphatically proclaims: you may not do this. When you have your sacrificial meal, you must ‘rejoice before God’.
On one level, this is an attempt to regulate worship, and to reduce the threat of pagan worship in the Land of Israel. Ironically, the Torah is actually reducing the scope of sacrifice as a mode of worship by limiting it to certain places and within certain contexts. However, even if we live in an age with no Temple and no sacrifices, the message of the Torah is critically relevant especially now.
What is interesting to note about the book of Deuteronomy is not just what Moses says, but what he decides to omit. The most important institution in the desert, the Tabernacle, is completely missing from the speech of Moses. He does not describe its utensils, describe the laws of purity associated with it, talk about its construction, describe the specific sacrifices there. One must ask why such prominent themes in the rest of the Torah are completely ignored. Perhaps because Moses realized that the Jewish people stand at a transitional moment, as they enter the land of Israel. The Tabernacle, for all its holiness, was a temporary structure. God did not reside in the place of the desert, but rather appeared through a makeshift Tabernacle. In essence, God was as homeless as the people he led out of Egypt.
When the people enter the land of Israel however, plant fields, and build their own houses, they are then commanded to appoint a place for God. Should the God who took the people into the Land of Israel and gave each a portion in its land deny God of a portion as well? By emphasizing a future Temple and deemphasizing a makeshift tabernacle, Moses is telling them that just as they settle themselves, they need to settle God as well. Building a home for God and frequenting that home is a sign of respect. When the Jewish people consolidated the kingdom, King David himself saw the incongruity that he has a palace, yet the king of kings does not!
Strikingly, unlike the desert, the dominant theology in the Torah is God does have a home, and that home is in Jerusalem. The Jewish people were very aware of this contradiction; King Solomon in his dedication of the Temple notes that ‘all the heavens cannot contain you’. And yet, that the infinite logically cannot inhere in finite space does not prevent us from trying to do just that. If you want to experience God and be inspired, you do not do this from your back yard, you do it from Jerusalem.
As we have heard,
so we have seen
in the city of the Lord Almighty,
in the city of our God:
God makes her secure
Within your temple, O God,
we meditate on your unfailing love.
Walk about Zion, go around her,
count her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
view her citadels,
that you may tell of them
to the next generation.
For this God is our God for ever and ever;
he will be our guide even to the end. (Psalm 48, excerpts)
If we want to honor someone, we go to their house, and not have them come to us. If we want to learn about someone and their values, we go to where they are. Jerusalem is not only the home of God, but was the center of the kingdom, the Sanhedrin (courts) and the Torah center. You simply cannot connect to ‘meditate on your unfailing love’ with an altar in your backyard. This is also why we send young adults on Birthright; it is the first time they experience being Jewish on a much bigger and all-encompassing canvass. As they walk through the land of Israel, there sense of self and identity deepens and broadens. Once again, context matters.
While we do not have a Temple today, we do have many Temples, mikdashei me’at. They serve a critical purpose in the Jewish community, by ‘giving God a home’. (Whether every synagogue lives up to that is always a question. Just remember that the prophets also railed against ritual in the Temple, bereft of ethics and justice.) In a period of COVID, it was understandable that many liberal synagogues went online to provide connection. The positive aspects of technological advances and our ability to connect is undeniable. For those isolated or immunocompromised this is a wonderful opportunity, and I believe it is undeniable that for many this technology has helped them grow as Jews. Yet, like any advancement, there is a darker side.
Just like in ancient times Jews said, I’ll build altars in my back yard, some Jews like the ‘convenience’ of ‘attending services’ from wherever they are. They could be in their favorite sweats, baking their favorite bread, and babysitting the grandchildren, all while attending services. Yet, synagogue is not about convenience or even about my own needs and experiences; it is about going to God’s house. God does not come to you; you go to God. God gives you life and blessings, and you go to thank God. If we received a gift from another person, we would not ask them to stop by when it is convenient for us to give the thank you note. We send them a thank you note, or even better go in person to thank them.
In 1942, the Tzitz Eliezer (Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Jerusalem, 1915-2006) was asked whether one could answer amen to prayers or listen to megillah over the phone or radio. While there was no Zoom at the time, some of the issues he raises are analogous to the modern situation. To say he frowns on this is an understatement. He responds that he sees it analogous to listening to a recording of a prayer on a record which he also decries, “as it is all but certain that the person reciting does not at that moment have the fear of the Enthroned, the Praise of Israel, which is required when saying prayers and praises, and he is neither picturing nor able to intend on picturing before himself the “know‐before‐whom‐you‐stand” (i.e. God).
Similarly, the prayer leader needs to have the people in mind, and he questions whether the phone is sufficient. He compares a prayer leader leading prayer over the telephone or radio to one who blows shofar from a pit. A person that hears an echo of that shofar does not fulfill the mitzvah, as they must actually hear the sound blown by the blower themselves. As blowing the shofar is analogous to a prayer of the heart- a prayer without words, the role of the shofar blower is to help lift the congregation in prayer. In other words, the people are not responding to the resonance of a disembodied sound, but the cries of a fellow person in front of them reaching upwards to God. Context makes all the difference. He concludes with some very acerbic comments. “For its own part: how ugly it is: the entire congregation sitting, its ears to the radio, like they listen to the news and music, to also hear the words of God. This Torah and prayer must sprout from a gladness of the heart and an excitement of the soul… listening to the sound of the radio is certainly not service of the heart and is not even service of the body.”
The message is very clear. One cannot ultimately exist in a Zoom community, even if we can do some things together online. Gathering is more than doing things together, but the very act of being together. Context makes all the difference. While extenuating circumstances might create short term needs, the impacts of the new normal can be very corrosive to the values we want to teach our communities.
I would like to conclude with one additional idea. It is clear from the parashah that going to the ‘place appointed by God’ was not only to ‘see God’ but to see one another; that is the other leitmotif. Almost every mitzvah recorded by Moses here has a social dimension. When one rejoices, whether during the three pilgrimage festivals or by giving a thanksgiving offering, they must invite the landless Levites, the servants, and the poor to rejoice with them. In coming to Jerusalem, the people leave their houses and share with others. Throughout Deuteronomy there is a radical ethos of egalitarianism, that the people are all ‘brothers’ and are enjoined to share with one another. It is not a coincidence that the mitzvot of tzedakah are recorded in our parashah (Deut. 15:7-8). When everyone comes to Jerusalem, they will encounter the stories of their brother, and they will need to respond. Thus, coming together is not simply about sensitizing our relationship with God, but very much about our relationship with one another.
We have the adage, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Moses would certainly agree to that. As we move towards Rosh HaShanah, let’s commit to being seen and having others in mind as well.
 The second tithe is brought in years 1,2,4, and 5 in the Shemitta cycle. This is over and above the tithe that went to the Levite, as they were landless and dependent upon the produce. Ten percent of one’s produce is set aside, is holy, and is brought to be eaten in Jerusalem. If it is two difficult to bring the crops, they were redeemed for money and the money was then spent in Jerusalem buying produce. The notion here is perhaps a ‘sacrificial meal for God’ in recognition that of God’s blessing. This is done in Jerusalem, at the House of God. (See Deut. 14:22-27) In years 3 and 6 this additional tithe was giving to the poor, maser oni (Deut. 14:27-28)
 To what Moses is actually referring is very unclear and discussed by the commentaries, for in the desert they could only go to the tabernacle to sacrifice (see e.g., Rashi, Rashbam and Ramban ibid.)
 Maimonides in part III of the Guide to the Perplexed makes this argument.
 See insights of R. Amnon Bazak, Nekudot Peticha [Hebrew] (Yediot Sefarim, 2018): 407
 Thank you to Elana Stein Hain for pointing the fundamental theme of this Psalm to me.
 וכמה מכוער הדבר מצד עצמו, שכל הקהל ישב ואזניו אל הראדיו כמו ששומעים כל החדשות והנגינות לשמוע גם דברי ה’ זאת תורה או תפלה שצריך שיהיו נובעים מתוך רינת הלב והתרגשות הנפש, שהלא כל עיקר התפלה למדנו מועבדתם את ה’ אלקיכם, זו היא עבודה שבלב, ושמיעה מפי הראדיו ודאי שאינה עבודה שבלב ואף לא עבודה שבגוף. R. Eliezer Waldenberg Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 20:19. (Translation by David Zvi Kalman)
 Orthodox communities, based upon daily gathering and abstaining from technology on the Sabbath and festivals were particularly challenged. For this reason, from very early on in the pandemic, Orthodox leadership devised strategies address the needs for public safety with the need to gather. Synagogues were by-in-large open following the initial stage of the pandemic- even before the vaccine. While the press reported on the mass outbreaks of COVID in ultra-Orthodox communities in both New York and Israel- underscoring how important gathering is for these communities- it largely ignored the thousands of congregations creatively (and in my mind responsibly) creating safe ways to interact.