Resolution Through Repentance
Parashat Re'eh, along with the month of Elul, remind us that repentance and rapprochement are always the ideal path.
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The Hebrew month of Elul is a very special time in the Jewish year--it is the month directly preceding Rosh Hashanah. It is a time for introspection, personal growth, and preparation for the New Year. It is also a time of heightened spirituality, during which we re-visit our purpose, our relationships with each other, and our connection to God. The word "Elul," when spelled in Hebrew, also represents the acronym for the words, "I am to my beloved, my beloved is to me" (ani l'dodi v'dodi li).
This week's Torah portion, Parashat Re'eh, begins with a choice:
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… and curse, if you do not obey the commandments…and follow other gods (11:26-28).
The parashah continues with rules and laws pertaining to life in the land of Israel, beginning with the admonition to stay far from idol worship and other religions in the land.
This parashah is also a source for the concept of the Jews as a "Chosen People":
For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people (14:2).
For what are we chosen? To act responsibly, to live morally, and to be a "light unto the nations."
The remainder of this portion details many mitzvot [commandments] that set us apart from all other nations. These include kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), practices related to lending money, how to treat a Jew who is a slave, the consecration of the first-born animal, and a review of the three pilgrimage holidays: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles).
The consequences of following these mitzvot are clearly spelled out:
"Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you, thus it will go well with you and your descendents after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God" (12:28).
Yet while this parashah extensively lists laws that help us lead moral lives, it also describes one of the most difficult topics in the Torah--the commandment to destroy anyone--individual, community, or even town--devoted to worshipping idols. It is hard for me to grasp this idea, especially since it is found within the context of the commandments listed above, which all seem to enhance our spiritual growth to create a closer relationship with God. How is it possible that destroying another person would ultimately bring us closer to God, especially if, as Jews, we are committed to pursuing peace as an ultimate value?
Sometimes war is necessary. Judaism teaches that while the most precious value is life, we are not pacifists. Destroying evil and wiping out a community of evil that is involved with idolatry is also part of justice. The key to any battle or war is to act with mercy. But even when we must take these difficult steps to uphold our values, we do so in a specific way. The Torah states: "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace"(20:10). The opportunity for teshuvah (repentance) and rapprochement is there until the very end. We are commanded to resolve dangerous disputes, because if we leave evil alone, it will eventually attack us (Rashi, 20:12). But peaceful resolution is always preferred.
As we enter the month of Elul, we each fight our own internal struggles against our flaws and shortcomings. But even when this battle seems difficult or hopeless, we should remember that God always accepts teshuvah. With this encouragement, hopefully we will all gain the needed strength to do "what is good and right in the sight of the Lord."
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