The Sidra of Re’eh starts in the middle of chapter 11 in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is reasonably common for Sidrot to start in the middle of a chapter. However, this phenomenon requires an explanation. Why, for example, does this Sidra begin in the middle of a chapter? The Rabbis of the Masorah, who flourished in the 10th century, were responsible for preserving the text of the Bible and also, among other activities, for the division of the Torah into 54 Sidrot. Up to that time, the reading of the entire Torah took three or 3½ years. The Festival of Simchat Torah did not exist. Gradually, all Jewish communities, throughout the world, adopted the annual cycle. Simchat Torah became an important Festival.
The rabbis of the Masorah were guided by principles which differed from those that guided the Christian scholars who introduced the chapter divisions. Our rabbis decided to conclude the previous Sidra of Ekev on a positive note. In this respect, they followed the custom which had become prevalent by the 10th century. The last verse in the Sidra of Ekev contains the Almighty’s promise that the indigenous population of the land of Canaan would be petrified at the Israelites’ arrival. He also declares that Israel will go on to be victorious in their war of conquest. At the beginning of Reeh the Almighty counsels the Israelites to choose between ‘the blessing’ and the ‘curse’. The blessing lies in heeding God’s Commandments. The curse lies in rejecting them.
Christian scholars had a contrasting view. They regarded the first section of the Sidra Re’eh, as part of the story of the conquest. In their view, the new section, which is now Chapter 12, verse 1, begins with Moses’ new speech. It begins with the verse: “These are the laws and rules which you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers is giving you to possess, as long as you live on Earth.” In other words, chapter 12 is devoted to the settlement itself. It warns the Israelites that as soon as they have the upper hand, they must destroy the pagan religious symbols which they will discover throughout the land.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that our rabbis planned that the Sidrot should begin and conclude with similar ideas. The Sidra of Re’eh is a perfect example. It begins with blessing and ends with blessing. At the beginning, the Almighty instructed us to choose the blessing and at the end He promises us the blessing of success and prosperity. This signifies the concept of ’measure for measure’. If we choose God’s blessing, God will choose to bless us with His bounty.
The second section of the Sidra, beginning with chapter 14 and extending to the very end, is devoted to the concept of holiness. This chapter begins with the sentence: “You are the children of the Lord your God” The first laws in this section relate to mourning. The Torah considers the pagan mourning practices to be repugnant. It prohibits adopting the Canaanites’ signs of grief. It refers, in particular, to the practices of gashing oneself and shaving the front of one’s head.
Rashi explains that we should behave in a way that befits the children of God. We are princes. We should look after our physical appearance. We should not deliberately make ourselves bald and we should not cut our flesh. The Torah says that we were created in the image of God. This also means that we must preserve our physical appearance which the Almighty has given us. We must refrain from self –harming and damaging ourselves in any way. It is told of ‘the Ari’, the great Mystic of Tzfat, that he knew whether or not a person was a sinner by looking at his appearance. When our bodies are abused, our souls are also harmed.
The Torah goes on to deal with other laws relating to holiness. First, the Torah distinguishes between pure animals, birds and fish which we may eat and those that are impure and which we may not eat. It, then, commands us to separate the second tithe every first second fourth and fifth year of the cycle of seven years. The second tithe had to be brought and eaten within the sacred precincts of Jerusalem. It then tells us about the seventh year, which was holy. At the end of the seventh year all debts have to be released. At the very end of the Sidra we find the laws relating to the three pilgrimage festivals. These were holy times.
All the laws of holiness in this Sidra are closely linked to the laws of charity, in a variety of ways. For example, the Torah commands us to be happy during the festivals; but it emphasises that we can only be happy if we include the poor and the needy in our meals and celebrations. Maimonides says that it is not a spiritual happiness, if we partake of beautiful meals, during the festivals without inviting poor people to join us. It is only happiness for our stomachs. Maimonides says that this kind of attitude is to be repudiated.
The law of the second tithe begins with the words ASSER TE'ASER, which literally means ‘you shall separate a tithe from all your produce’. The rabbis of the Midrash interpreted it with a pun on the two words. They said ‘ASER K’DEI SHETIT’ASHER. ‘Separate a tithe so that you will become rich’. At a straightforward, simple level, this means that if a person gives charity, the Almighty rewards him with the blessing of wealth. However, Rabbi Shimon Schwab has offered another very attractive explanation. It means that when a person is prepared to share his possessions with others by giving them a tenth, his reward that he feels that he is rich. The act of giving grants him a sense of contentment and satisfaction. He achieves a state of being which the Tana’itic teacher Ben Zoma describes in the Mishnah (in The Ethics of the Fathers chapter 4, Mishnah 1): “Who is rich? It is the person who is satisfied with what he has”.