THE CHOSEN PLACE
The central motif of Parshat Re'eh is the obligation to create a central place of worship at a location of God's choosing:
But to the place which the Eternal, your God, shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, to his habitation shall you seek, and there you shall come. (Deuteronomy 12:5)
When the Israelites enter the Land they are commanded to seek out a place of holiness, the place which was designated for the worship of God. All other idolatrous, cultic practices and forms of worship are forbidden; only service of the one true God is permitted. The other laws in the parsha are related to this central theme, although they take on various forms: Some are polemical, specifically addressing the substance of pagan practice, while others address more subtle, authoritative issues, such as the laws against the false prophet who undermines or corrupts faith in God and leads the people to idolatry.
The laws of forbidden food may be ancillary to this theme. In the Temple, only specific animals may be offered in sacrifice. Similarly, outside of the Temple, there are also specific animals which are may be eaten. The Rambam goes so far as to suggest that some of the laws of kashrut are themselves a polemic against pagan practices.
In Parshat Re'eh, the festivals are introduced, with the exception of Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This "peculiarity" may also be related to the theme of centralized worship in the Temple: Only the three holidays which require pilgrimage are included. The message of this parsha is driven home, both by what is taught - and by what is not: The Temple is the central place of worship, and pagan practice is prohibited.
TO BE GOOD AND RIGHTEOUS
In the midst of these laws we find the following instruction:
Observe and hear all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you forever, when you do that which is good and right (literally, straight) in the eyes of the Eternal, your God. (Deuteronomy 12:28)
Rashi explains what "good and right" mean:
The good - in the eyes of Heaven; the right (straight or upright) - in the eyes of man. (Rashi, Deuteronomy 12:28)
Rashi's comments here seem somewhat strange. Why is man brought into the equation, when the verse in question speaks only of man's relationship with God? "Good and right in the eyes of the Eternal, your God" does not involve any interpersonal relationship; why would Rashi force this sort of wedge into the verse? To be fair, we should note that Rashi's comment is not the fruit of his own imagination. As is his wont, Rashi explains the verse by incorporating an ancient rabbinic comment on this phrase.1 Yet this observation does not solve our problem; it merely pushes it back a few generations. Why did those earlier sages insert the additional perspective of human perception into a verse that concerns man's relationship with God alone? Furthermore, why did Rashi choose this specific comment to explain the verse? What convinced Rashi that this is the "straightforward" meaning of the text?
GOOD AND RIGHT
A closer look at the two central words of this phrase may give us more insight. "Good" and "straight" are intrinsically different concepts: Good is an absolute term, a value statement. To know and declare something to be good, one needs an overarching, independent perspective.2 The term "right" is far more subjective; what is right in one situation may be wrong in another. The Maharal makes this point in his comments on Rashi: Ultimately, only God has the perspective to see what is good - absolutely good. At best, all that man can discern is whether something is straight or twisted.3
The Ramban grapples with this verse as well, and refers the reader back to a verse in last week's parsha, V'etchanan:
And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of God; that it may be well with you, and that you may go in and possess the good land which God swore to your fathers. (Deuteronomy 6:18)
Here the word "good" clearly refers to "God's sight", to God's unique perspective. The Ramban regards this statement as an overriding commandment of the Torah - to be decent4: While there are many commandments that teach specific actions which must be performed or avoided, in the Ramban's view this is a broad law which creates an umbrella for other interpersonal laws.5 Thus, aside from specific obligations and prohibitions, the Torah also legislates decency. The Ramban reiterates this view regarding our verse in Parshat Re'eh.
While we have no trouble accepting that the Torah is in favor of decency, or even that this overriding commandment is extremely important, we are none the wiser as to its introduction at this particular juncture, in the context of the centrality of the Temple and the rejection of idolatry. Why is this principle of interpersonal law taught here?
JERUSALEM IS SURROUNDED BY MOUNTAINS
Understanding more about the Temple and Jerusalem may provide a solution to this quandary. There is an interesting dichotomy between the chosen place of worship - eventually identified as the Temple in Jerusalem - and pagan worship which was practiced elsewhere. In this week's parsha we find a phrase, echoed numerous times in Scripture, used to describe the practice of idolatry:
You shall completely destroy all the places where the nations which you shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree. (Deuteronomy 12:2)
The mountains, hills and trees in this verse seem an apt description of the Land of Israel, but this is no innocuous guide to the landscape. This seemingly benign phrase provides insight into the psyche of the sinner. The Land of Israel is full of mountains, hills and trees. A person who wanted to serve his idol could easily and immediately turn to any available mountain, hill or tree. This made idolatry extremely accessible; it was a wonderful solution, an "instant" salve for those in need of immediate gratification.
Not so Jerusalem. As the psalmist sings,
Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains... (Psalm 125:2)
This is not only a lesson in geography or topography, this is a spiritual statement. Getting to Jerusalem, to the Temple, requires an arduous climb. Like the physical world, the spiritual world has rules; in modern parlance, one might say "No pain, no gain." 6 Spiritual growth is necessarily the result of hard work, long hours, introspection; this is the path to enlightenment, and it is represented by the metaphor of the physical Jerusalem. Whereas idolatry was practiced under every tree, on every hill, on every mountain, required no effort, was immediately available like a narcotic for an addict in withdrawal--it provided no growth. Idolatry is just a "quick fix."
Serving God requires an act of surrender. Man must first recognize that he is created in God's image; then, he can worship his Maker. The idolater worships his own handiwork. Instead of an act of submission, it is an act of narcissism. In serving God, man must recognize the impossible chasm between God's greatness and man's failings; this is the starting point for the grueling journey. It is man's striving to shorten this divide, to bridge the chasm by learning to emulate God, that creates spiritual growth. Only when man acknowledges that he may be able to emulate God, to draw closer to the source of holiness and spirituality, but will never breach the gulf, is man a true servant of God.
A central place of worship was not merely about geography; it was more than a socially-accepted, nationally-appointed place to pray and serve God. It was meant to be transformative. Religious growth is designed to combat man's self-absorbed, self-involved proclivities. Climbing to Jerusalem was the polar opposite of idolatry, bringing about a metamorphosis that cancelled out self-indulgence and immediate gratification.
Despite all this, the climb to Jerusalem for pilgrimage may not have been enough to uproot underlying pagan attitudes. A person who came to Jerusalem to perform sacrificial rites may have confused the Jewish festivals with pagan service of a needy god. Man still stood the risk of perfunctory performance, devoid of religious transformation.
Such a schism results in a compartmentalized worldview: On the one hand, man serves God in Jerusalem; on the other hand, his personal life is unaffected. He lacks decency in his relationships with his fellow men. The idolatry is still there, buried beneath the religious practice, for such a person is still worshiping himself, submitting to his own needs, seeking immediate gratification. Service of God is a perfunctory gesture if the person performing it is unwilling to emulate God in their everyday dealings with others, to strive for and maintain a level of spirituality and holiness that flows from the spiritual apex of Temple sacrifice, but reaches far beyond. While he may have served God on the festival, a person who does not make the transformation in the interpersonal sphere has not surrendered to God. In the words of our verse, it is not enough to do only what is good in the eyes of God; we also need to do what is "straight" in the eyes of man, for these concepts are intertwined. Neither perspective is sufficient; only the two perspectives together will bring harmony between man and God and between man and man. Only when we make that climb, and allow the surrender of our own will to permeate all of our relationships, will we realize the prophetic vision expressed by King David in his Song of Ascents, recited by the Levites on the final steps leading to the Temple7:
A Song of Ascents: Those who trust in God shall be like Mount Zion, unassailable and abiding forever. As Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains, so God surrounds his People, from this time forth and forever more. For the scepter of the wicked shall not rest upon the share allotted to the righteous; lest the righteous put forth their hands to do wrong. God is good to those who are good, and to those who are straight (upright) in their hearts. As for those who turn aside to their crooked ways, God shall lead them away with the evil doers; but peace shall be upon Israel. (Psalm 125)
Peace upon Israel is dependent upon our own actions, upon our own quest to combine the two perspectives of the verse in Parshat Re'eh, reflected in King David's Songs of Ascent to the Temple: Only by surrendering our will to God's perspective, and allowing this perspective to shape and define the human interactions that comprise our personal lives, will we bring about lasting peace. We must be "good" in God's eyes, which will help us to know how to be "righteous" in the eyes of our fellow men. The mountain is steep, the climb arduous; the distance we must travel is immense, seemingly impossible. But the first step is the difficult one: the abandonment of self-serving idolatry, the sacrifice of self-service for true service of God. When man takes this first step, those last fifteen Steps of Ascent to the Temple in Jerusalem come into sight, and we can almost hear the songs of the Levites.
May those who are still crooked be made straight and righteous. May we all find the courage to take that first step on the climb to Jerusalem, on the path to becoming "good in the eyes of God" and "upright in the eyes of man." May there be peace upon Israel.
1. Sifri Re'eh, piska 27. Rashi follows the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, whereas Rabbi Yishmael inverses the teaching; the latter reads "good" as in the eyes of man, while "straight" is in the eyes of God.
2. See Rashi Bereishit 1:7, and the comments of the Torah Temima Devarim chapter 12 note 113.
3. Maharal Gur Aryeh Devarim 12:28.
4. Ramban Devarim 6:18.
5. In a similar fashion the Ramban understands the commandment to be holy as an umbrella for laws between man and God. See Ramban on Vayikra 19:2. Rabbi Moshe of Drohitchin (1705-1781) in his work Magid Mishna (commenting on Rambam, Mishne Torah, Laws of Neighbors 14:5) combines both teachings of the Ramban (though he cites neither).
6. See Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik "Man of Faith in the Modern World," Reflections of the Ravvolume 2 (Rabbi Avraham Besdin, ed.), page 137.
7. Talmud Bavli Sukka 51b: There upon the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Court of the Women, corresponding to the Fifteen Songs Of Ascents In the Psalms. It was upon these that the Levites stood with their instruments of music and sang their songs.