Satiating the appetite for power through compassion


25 Av 5780/August 14, 2020

R’eah means, “see,” in the sense of, “pay attention all the time; do not become unfocused or distracted from your purpose in life.” Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno, 15th-16th century Italy, explains: See, do not be mediocre, do not lead a mundane, purposeless life as others allow themselves to do. The purpose of the Jewish people is to live a life radically dedicated to the blessing of goodness. (Seforno on Devarim 11:26, & fn. #1 in Torat Hayyim edition)  This is Moshe’s task in this speech: to provide the generation of the wilderness with tropes that will keep them focused on their purpose in the world. Idolatry’s allure constantly distracted the people, enabling their immediate desires to seduce them and cloud their perception of what is good, compassionate, just, and true.

Parashat R’eah is the third and most complex of Moshe’s speeches to the generation of the wilderness. That rabbinic term, dor hamidbar, the generation of the wilderness, is itself instructive. The phrase does not merely describe historical reality. The words, generation of the wilderness, provide a phenomenological template for all future generations of the Jewish people. Moshe is teaching us to see ourselves as a generation of the wilderness at all times. As such, Moshe is teaching that the trials and challenges of that generation will continuously re-emerge, expressed by the contemporary idioms of the day. This goal of this final speech in the trilogy, then, is to provide a prescription for meeting the perennial challenges that will keep humanity focused on the task of creating a world filled with Godliness, and protecting all of creation from the human capacity for turning the world into a godless, horrific, cruel and desolate place. 

The midbar is the perfect place to fashion this prescription. The word, midbar, has three meanings. It means, simultaneously, “uncultivated place,” “a place of leadership,” and, “a place of communicative speech.” As an uncultivated environment, the midbar extends opportunities of pure potential to humanity. The word, midbar means, “lead” in the sense of a shepherd leading a flock, which the shepherd does humbly and gently yet clearly and firmly, from behind. And the word, midbar, is constructed from the Hebrew root d-b-r, which means, “to speak,” transforming it into a place resonant with voice. 

I have already suggested a way of reading the wars against the nations and the conquering of Eretz Canaan as a parable for the battle against idolatry. The central theme of parashat Vaetchanan in the battle against idolatry is the requirement that every generation reevaluate the sacred memories of their past. Parashat Ekev emphasized that humanity’s purpose is to see ourselves as servants of the Creator, imagining a world without idols. Idolatry spawns arrogance, which in turn places one’s nativist, self-aggrandizing needs before all other responsibilities. The more a society behaves egotistically, the more cruel and unjust it becomes, convincing itself through falsehood that every oppression and every form of hatred is justified. Life becomes purely tribal. In parashat R’eah, Moshe returns to the connection between our ego, arrogance, and idolatry, and lays a psychological foundation for humanity to exercise the discipline and control we need to protect and nourish our world. 

Smashing of idols and annihilating idolatrous societies will not reshape society. Cultures are a complex, delicate fabric of interwoven patterns of beliefs, behaviors, norms, values, and institutions of governance. Tearing down idols and symbols of a culture only deepens a psychic wound and intensifies feelings of fear, resentment and hatred. The act of tearing something down must simultaneously offer a more beneficial replacement. Moshe started to do just that here in Re’ah, and then continued after these speeches to teach mitzvot that provide a constructive foundation for the kind of world God imagines for humanity. Moshe’s entire project in Sefer Devarim is to teach a way of thinking and living that might inoculate humanity from the disastrous error of self-worship and the thirst for power that often justifies racism, oppression, cruelty, and a complete lack of appreciation for the diversities of the natural and cultural worlds we inhabit.

The literary structure of Parashat R’eah comprises three sections plus a coda. The first section describes cravings and appetite, ta’avat hanefesh, followed by the leitmotif of the place where God chooses to have the divine name dwell. The middle section describes three forms of idolatry that emerge from within the Jewish people themselves, rather than from other cultures. These are the false prophet (navi sheker), the corrupt, charismatic leader (hamei-seet), and the idolatrous city (‘ir nidachat). In the third section, Moshe returned to the topics of God’s sanctuary and the power of human appetite. The parasha then concludes with a coda describing the sacred calendar.

What Moshe has done, then, is book-end the battle against idolatry with references to human appetite, passion and desire. Moshe identified human cravings and appetite as the foundation for how we will choose to live, and insists that we manage our cravings by keeping in mind the place of God’s presence in the world: If you live far from the place of God’s sanctuary, you may slaughter from your herds as God has instructed, and eat within your precincts to satiate your cravings….Only take extra precaution and discipline yourselves by not consuming the blood, for that is the creature’s life-force. Do not consume that together with the flesh. (Devarim 12:21-23) Human beings will crave meat, requiring slaughter; however, quite literally, Moshe forbids them from becoming “blood-thirsty.” Ramban emphasizes this point by associating the prohibition against eating blood of non-sacrificial meat with idolatry. The foundational reason for the prohibition is because the blood is the animal’s life force. Nevertheless, Ramban wrote, …although one might have surmised that it was permitted to eat non-sacrificial meat with the blood, the Torah prohibits eating the way idolaters in Egypt made offerings to their demon-gods, as attractive as that practice was (אשר זונים אחריהם). Therefore, Israel is proscribed from eating blood, and also not to eat a limb torn from a living animal. They must pour the blood out onto the ground. (Ramban, ad locum)

Moshe moves from rules that recognize human cravings and forbid eating blood, to describing the idolatrous, treasonous prophet, the idolatrous, duplicitous political leader, and the treasonous confederacy of idolatrous cities. Israel’s battle with idolatry ultimately is a wrestling match with one’s thirst for blood, a struggle with a primordial desire to dominate and overpower and consume. This wrestling match is  both an individual, spiritual struggle, as well as one for a society’s national character. Even if annihilation served as an ethic of war in the ancient Middle East, the structure of Moshe’s speech suggests to me that the wars are over a mind-set and attitude more than against nations of flesh and bone. That mind-set is one that prefers power over the common good, cruelty over compassion and empathy, and tribal nativism over a vision of a diverse humanity sharing awe and respect for the Creator of the natural world. From this perspective, the conquest of  Eretz Canaan is a sacred parable about the spiritual war against idolatry rather than as a charter of nationalist, racist genocide.

If the Torah has anything to teach us, it must be interpreted in ways that reinforce a life-affirming mandate that begins with the triumph of humility over arrogance and power.  There is, indeed, such a tradition of interpretation that came from ancient Alexandria. In antiquity. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo read these passages just this way. He understood the mitzvot requiring the annihilation of idolatrous nations symbolically. He read these passages as describing the inner struggle of the mind against the temptations of idolatry that eventually develop into justifications for oppression, abuse of power, and cruelty. Accordingly, Moshe taught here that not only must each individual engage in this struggle against the allure of serving an idol, but entire societies must guard themselves against the insidious danger of idolatry as well. Professor Louis Feldman explains Philo’s approach this way:

…Philo, who is concerned not with political but with philosophical matters and who is not interested in the struggle to overcome the enemies of the Jews and to establish an independent Jewish state in Palestine, presents an allegorical interpretation of the struggle between the Amalekites and the Israelites (Legum Ailegoria 3.66.186-187). He equates Israel with the mind and the army of the soul. Amalek, by way of contrast, is said to be a type of character who is equated with passion and who hungers after pleasure. (De Migratione Abrahami 26.144) Thus, Moses’ lifting up his hands represents the victory of the mind over mortal things….What is most remarkable in all this is that Philo has totally omitted the divine injunction to eradicate the Amalekites as a people and instead has equated them with passion or evil. (Louis Feldman, The Command, According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus, to Annihilate the Seven Nations of Canaan, Yeshiva University, in, Andrew University Seminary Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp.13-29, 2003).

This same reading applies to the seven Canaanite nations as to the war against Amelek first mentioned in the Book of Shemot and then reiterated later in Devarim. 

When Moshe, in the third section of the parasha, returns to the topic of the place where God chooses to have the divine name dwell, and the power of desire and appetite, he offers a substitute for the self-serving cruelty and thirst for blood that emerge from idolatry. In this final section, Moshe reiterates the rules of kashrut, a set of restrictions on human consumption. Moshe then follows these restrictions with three applications of how one might redirect one’s passions: the responsibility to tithe (ma’aser sheni & ma’aser ‘ani), the responsibility to forgive loans (shemitat kesafim), and the obligation to redeem the indigent from poverty or indentured servitude (patoach tiftach ‘et yadecha). All three of these mitzvot redirect passions away from self-concern towards responsibilities for others. For example, after donating ten percent of one’s produce to the local Levite for his service in God’s sanctuary, the “second tithe” (ma’aser sheni) required every Israelite to redeem an additional tithe, travel to God’s sanctuary, purchase food there, and eat a festive meal in God’s presence. The Torah is clear about the purpose of such a requirement: …so that each person will learn to acquire the sensibility of awe of the Lord your God for as long as you are alive….take the money, purchase the meat and drink to satisfy your cravings, and rejoice before God, you and your entire household. (Devarim 14:23-26) Cravings must be satisfied, but not idolatrously, not in ways that deepen one’s one self-worship and insatiable desire for power. Furthermore, of the six years one is obligated to tithe, every third and sixth year is a tithe for the poor, ma’aser ‘ani. Craving becomes assuaged through the deep satisfaction one gains by feeling humility in response to the blessings one has in life. That humility. In turn, compels one to ask: “What can I do?” followed by reaching out to other people with empathy and love. By identifying the centrality of human passions, Moshe directs Israel to sublimate those cravings and satisfy them through compassionate habits of mind and action. What started as a concern with ta’avat hanefesh, primordial cravings to overpower and eat, becomes transformed into outward expressions of giving. 

The author of the Sefer HaChinuch by Rabbi Aharon haLevi of 14th century Barcelona, explained these mitzvot of tithes, forgiveness of loans, and tzedakah explicitly: 

The God of the universe wanted all human beings to habituate themselves with the quality of character of compassion and empathy. This is because these qualities are the most praiseworthy in a person. Furthermore, the more one acts on such qualities of goodness, the more worthy a person becomes to receive goodness in his life. For what God wants most for humanity is life filled with goodness and blessing….Furthermore, it is a privilege for us to be God’s emissaries in supporting the poor [thereby bringing more Godliness into the world God created.]  In addition, although God could provide for the poor, it is good for people to help each other, for by receiving help from another person, one is chastised and humbled….(Mitzvah 446, ma’aser ‘ani, referencing the mitzvah of providing loans to the poor, mitzvah #66)

Moshe concludes his majestic speech with a coda describing the Jewish calendar. The ritualization of sacred time enables the nation to keep God’s sanctuary, and by extension, the sanctity of life, in its consciousness. This is particularly true of the three pilgrimage festivals. Pesach ensures that one remember the day we were liberated from Egypt all the days of our life. (Devarim 16:3) Seven creation cycles later, during the festival of Shavuot, Israel is enjoined to make donations from the blessings God granted in order that …you and your sons and daughters and your servants and the Leviim and immigrants and orphans and widows all feel deep satisfaction (simcha) before God. (Devarim 16:9-11) Several verses later these phrases repeat and describe the festival of Sukkot, the final harvest celebration of the year. During that celebration, the Torah says that we should recognize the work of our hands as blessings from God. 

Moshe opened this speech with the word, r’eah, “see,” meaning, “discern and understand.” Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Gur, the early 19th century Chassidic master, explained the kind of discernment Moshe was teaching here. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (known as the RIM) associated idolatry with egotistical self-worship and arrogance, and awe of the Creator with humility and the ability to act with compassion and empathy. He emphasized that the ego will try to seduce a person continuously to fall so in love with him/herself, that they will come to believe idolatrously in their own self-importance. In his comments, which I bring here, he retells the Talmudic version of the myth of narcissus: 

The Holy One has endowed the Jewish people–[and I add, by extension, all human beings]–with the innate ability to distinguish between good and evil, and to recognize the truth…yet people can start to sway ever so slightly from the goodness of God, and once that happens, one is on the path towards evil…..

What Rabbi Yitzchak Meir means by “evil” is illustrated by the following parable he quotes from the Talmud Nedarim 9b, a parable about a Nazirite:

Shimon the Righteous once told the following parable: Once upon a time, I happened across a Nazirite from the south. I asked him, “My son–what predisposed you to ruin what had been your beautiful hair, [allowing your hair to become an unkempt, tangled mess?]” He explained, “I was a shepherd of my father’s flocks. One day I went to the spring to fill buckets with water for the animals. When I looked at my reflection, my ego started to overwhelm me such that I would have become so self-absorbed that I would have ceased relating to anyone or anything outside of myself. (פחז עלי יצרי וביקש לטורדני מן העולם) I said to myself/to my ego in that moment: ‘Wicked one! Why are you so arrogant?’” Upon hearing this, I immediately stood up and kissed him on his head….Shimon the Righteous taught this parable and praised the Nazirite because the Nazirite perceived that in the moment that one worships oneself, he abandons the affairs of the world. (…שהיה נחשב אצלו נטיה קלה על ידי שנראה יפה בעיני עצמו כאלו נטרד מן העולם)

Finally, he explicates the psychological nature of idolatry on this same, opening verse:

“See/understand–I have placed before you this day a blessing and a curse…..” God has endowed human beings with the ability to perceive and choose the path of goodness and blessing….God also has endowed people with the ability to perceive that the Holy One signals goodness and grants everyone the potential to make life-affirming choices anew every single day….It is every person’s challenge to remove his/her mask that prevents one from seeing all that one has. A broken heart can tear away these partitions. These masks are the work of the ego, which indeed knows itself to be phantasmagoric, yet nevertheless continues to offer false praise from behind its mask, preventing the person from seeing the path of goodness clearly…..

If ever the world needed to hear and heed these teachings, it is today. Our world is filled with mendacity that obfuscates truth, competing versions of events that belie facts, arrogance that turns its back on earth science and “Mother Nature,”  cruelty and hatred that ignore the history of oppression, and a general absence of leadership that inspires interdependence, compassion, empathy and love. The battle with idolatry is not an arcane matter of antiquities. It is, perhaps, the central struggle of our times.

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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