I. Read 11:26-28. We certainly have explored this basic idea many times before in the Bible - that God gives us the choice of how to live in accord with God’s expectations or live against them. Further, we’ve learned we’re blessed if we live with God, and cursed, so to speak, if we live away from God. And, finally, we’ve given a lot of attention to what this blessing means, and at many levels. My first question today is rather elementary: why does this discussion here begin with the Hebrew word, re’eh, which means, “see”?
(There are various possibilities: 1) Moses knows the senses of both sound and sight have been called upon at Sinai as well as listening to his exhortations. He wants to call upon the sense of sight to enrich the understanding, which happens, perhaps ritually, in the blessing and cursing that comes from the two mountains as they enter the land (verses 29, 30); 2) “see” means “understand,” as if Moses is re-enforcing learning by use of the word; 3) perhaps seeing is meant to be a deeper form of understanding, one that is needed to comprehend the reality of the choice, its consequence, and the importance of making it right, or 4) it’s simply that God has given us the choice that we are to see and understand (that is, instead of things being predestined, for example).
Perhaps, more directly, while we can’t see the Unseeable God, the sense most engaged in understanding the consequences of making the choice to serve/not serve God is indeed sight.
Here’s another way to put it: God sees the creation is good. We see the creation. We see God’s expectations of us. And we see the consequences of our choice. This is what we create. So, seeing is the form of ascertaining that best fits understanding the effect of creation.
Note finally that the verb for “see” is initially in the singular when we encounter it first in the portion and then becomes plural as we study on. What might that mean
(One possibility: though the instruction is for all people, the choice is for each of us to make.
*****YET, the word “to listen” follows twice! It’s as if we hear/listen to the mitzvoth, and then see the consequence of the choice to follow/not follow. Both senses are engaged, to be sure.)
II. Read 12:4, 8-11. The text here requires that the site for the Temple must be one, and centralized. This feature was never clear before, and indeed multiple sites were used beforehand. What’s the idea behind this new singularity in the text?
(Is this to contrast with the ways of the idolaters and the pagans whom the Israelites are supplanting? So, there are to be no worship sites that are alien or alien-like.
Is there a sense that multiple sites means multiple approaches, that is, the possibility of “adding” ways, practices, and even ultimately gods? Or is it that there should be one when the people settle in the land? After all, we just had a fresh emphasis on the idea of the One God. Wouldn’t it fit to have one shrine that the One God selects?
One further point: this clearly would have been in the interest of the centralized priesthood. Could that have caused this emphasis that remains in a later redaction?)
III. Read 12:20; compare to Genesis 1:29. Is this a change?
(Is there a Divine compromise of sorts that recognizes and honors human nature, differences between human beings and animals and certainly a difference in the killing of humans and animals? Where do we end up here?
There could be a preference for plants for eating but again a recognition of human desire for meat that is accommodated through the limits and disciples of kashrut. So, there are constraints of respect, care, stewardship that accompany and limit this new permission.
Or could this simply be a concession to the eating of meat outside the ritual setting at the sanctuary since many in the broader land would not be able regularly to come to the one shrine?)
IV. We won’t stop on the way through Chapter 13 except to note its tough language, warning against false prophets and diviners who turn the people against God, as well as misleaders who turn people away from God and scoundrels in the towns who do the same. Under our laws, we can’t take these people out in the manner the Bible describes, at least on its surface. And the distinctions between true and false prophets are very difficult to understand. Do you have thoughts about its meaning? Would we see these sorts of problems in our own day that Moses is warning against? If so, in what possible ways? And, if so, are there steps we can and should take that would deter or stop it?
V. Read 14:1. How would you explain this rule?
(One common explanation has been that pagans had this practice, and we don’t behave in the manner of pagans. Further, it was the practice of others in ancient times to be consumed by the dead and death.
We are to mourn and to remember and give honor to the dead, but we are not to disfigure ourselves, or go to excesses in mourning. This is not pleasing to the God who created us in the Divine image, and is our Source, both in life and death. We should have comfort in the soul’s remaining intact and being gathered to God. Our sages, Ramban and Sforno, thus, teach against these excesses, as if they are actions that would be more associated with the terror of a very different view than ours of life and death, that is, of chilling finality.)
VI. We won’t re-visit the kosher rules and practices and the tithe requirements that are described in the balance of Chapter 14, but I invite you to think on your own about why Moses emphasizes these matters here. I do want to look at one aspect of the tithes in the seven year cycle. Read 14:22-29. This is pretty complex, but can you see what happens to the annual tithe in each year of a seven year cycle? How do you react to it? What seems appealing about how it works?
(Every third year the tithe is a “poor man’s tithe,” to be used purely to support the Levites and those in need. The seventh year doesn’t involve a tithe at all naturally since there’s no production. And the other four years involve a grand celebration in Jerusalem for all, a feast for all, in celebration of, and gratitude, for God, together. I’ve often imagined what this could be like: a coming together in a central place, learning, praying, sharing and camaraderie, feasts, perhaps, for people like us, abundant learning - a glorious celebration with each other and God. Maybe we should try things like that in our own time. Better than going to Vegas or on big game hunts, I would say.
In any event, each segment of time contains Divine expectations that go to serving God and each other, especially those in need and the broader welfare of the community.)
VII. A. Read 15:1. We don’t remit debts in the seventh year in our own time, or generally at all. What was the fundamental idea here, and would that idea be of use to us now?
(It could have been a leveling principle, that is, an idea that economic power should never get dramatically, unevenly distributed from God’s original intentions. We should never get to a place where some are “owned” by others, as might be so with a permanent underclass. Differences in wealth and station are permitted, but extremes of this sort are not intended to be.)
B. Let’s read 7-11. What’s at play here? Bible quiz: what verses have we studied in the past few weeks that you recall when you read verse 7?
( 6:6 - These commandments…are to be on your hearts; 6:8 - tie them as symbols on your hands; 10:16-17 - cut away the thickness about your hearts. This instruction is to encourage a warm-heartedness and open-handedness to our neighbors, especially those in need. So, there’s the “law” obliging us to help in the ways we’ve just discussed. But here we see that God is seeking something more from us: that giving and doing are directed from God’s word and come through our heart and hand.
And it includes the idea that we can’t turn away from those in need when we’re approaching the seventh year of remission. Certain rules were adopted to assure fairness and reasonableness in these practices, but the core idea is vital: one must always give in trust in response to need at any time.)
C. Is verse 11 designed to be pessimistic, realistic, or something else? Before you answer, let’s read 4 and 7 again. What is the meaning here; how can these verses be reconciled?
(God’s desire is that there be no needy among us. God teaches us to that end, and we thus must aspire to eliminate destitution, and orient our heart and hand in that direction. When that occurs, these obligations may not be needed, but until then….we must act as if our responsibility exists each day of our lives, and that there will be a need each day to which we must be open to addressing. God is saying that in the world in which we live we owe as individuals and in community duties to each other and to the Divine. That’s the reason for and the purpose of the mitzvoth. And we have hope, as God has hope, for a time when there will be no destitute.
We live with both truths.)
VIII. We next see in rapid succession mention of mitzvoth we’ve already discussed on the limitations on slaveholding (though we should note that the constraints that are listed here are even greater than in Exodus), our duties to God with respect to the first born, the need for our offerings to God to be without blemish, and the importance of remembering and celebrating the three main pilgrimage festivals - Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
Rather than discussing any or all of these again, I’m curious, as we close out this portion, to get your thoughts on why you believe Moses might have chosen these and in this order.
(The “music” of the mitzvoth, especially when they’re pieced together to stand for the covenant, always seems to have common elements: fairness, justice, righteousness, and mercy in our relations with others, as God displays these attributes to us; our showing gratitude to God as the source of all our blessings and our coming near God to serve God; and our commemorating those times when God’s saving hand brought and still bring us together to be God’s people. These “notes” fit together here to make up the words of the beautiful “song” Moses “sings.”)