From harshness to compassion
Parsha R’eah contains two of the harshest commandments in the Torah
In the first commandment, we are told if enticed to worship an unknown God by a family member or closest friend, we are to show no pity or compassion but with the community stone him or her to death (Deuteronomy 13:7 to 13:11).
In the second commandment, we are told if we hear of a town in the Promised Land where some scoundrels have enticed the inhabitants to worship an unknown God, you shall investigate thoroughly and if true, put the inhabitants and the cattle to death by the sword and then burn the town and all their possessions as a holocaust to God. And leave it an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt. (Deut 13:13 to 13:17).
What to make of a God who issues such harsh commands? This seems a return to the God of Genesis in all his wrath– the God of Parsha Noah, drowning the world he created and now finds evil. Killing all life on earth except the inhabitants of the oceans, Noah, his family and representatives of all species of animals and insects, to start over again. The second commandment is akin to the wrath of the God of Parsha Vayera, shown to Sodom and Gomorrah. God rains down sulfurous fire to destroy the evil cities, all their inhabitants and even the vegetation.
What happened to the God of 13 attributes – rachum v’chanun, ereth apayin – compassionate, gracious, slow to anger. That is what I want to explore with you in this drash – how to understand these two commandments and the God who issued them.
To do this, we need to continue reading. What comes next are the laws of kashrut – dietary laws – followed by the laws of tithing. And then comes the commandment of sh’mittah – forgiving of debts every 7 years (Deut 14 v 1-2), This is followed by the laws of lending to the poor which needs to be done readily and with no regrets because there will always be poor among you. (Deut 14 v 15:7 to 15:11). Then comes the commandments for freeing of the indentured servant after 6 years of service. But they are not to leave empty handed, but with wealth – from the flock, the threshing field and the vat. (Deut 14 v15:12 -15:14).
Then we have the instructions for the three major pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavout, and Succot. There is the requirement on Shavout and Succot that we are to bring our sons and daughters, our male and female slaves, the Levite, the stranger in your communities, the fatherless and the widow with us to offer our free will offering to the place where God will establish his name (Deut 16 v 1-11)
We need to continue reading into the next parsha, Shoftim, which begins with the laws of justice – fair, unbiased, the same for everyone – that ends with one of the famous lines from the Torah – Justice, Justice, Zdek, Zdek shall you pursue (Deut 16:18 to 20).
Then we have what seem to be two of the stranger commandments that immediately follow the section on justice – almost non- sequiturs. The first commands us not to add a sacred post next to the altar and then the second is an admonition not to sacrifice blemished animals to God (Deut 16:21 to 17:1 .And then the commandment on stoning idolaters is repeated (Deut 17:2 to 17:7) only 20 pages, four chapters after we’ve been given it but with some differences. Among other changes, the reference to the idolater being a family member or a close friend has been replaced by the idolater simply being a man or a woman. The requirement to immediately take action if they entice you – without any investigation has been replaced with requirements for a thorough investigation and 2 or 3 witnesses. The commandant requiring destroying the idolatrous town is not repeated.
Taken together, these sections raise even more questions to answer:
Why repeat this commandment we were just given?
Why the differences in the commandment on stoning idolaters – with no mention of family and now requiring two or three witnesses?
Why is the commandment to burn down the town not repeated?
Why these specific set of commandments in between the repetition?
And then back to the original question – how do we understand a God who does not allow for repentance, a second chance.
And the question we always need to ask when studying – why is this even relevant today?
So let me give you how I would like to answer these questions. I see this entire flow from the original commandments regarding idolaters to the repetition of the first commandment as all one section. It needs to be read end to end.
I believe that the first two commandments never happened. They were meant to shock the reader like the blast of a shofar. To make you say how can I avoid ever having kill a member of my family or a closest friend? How can I avoid leading the destruction of an entire town and the death of all its inhabitants? What do I need to do? And then it tells us how step by step.
Step one – take away the reasons someone would turn to a new God or to search for a new God who will care about them vs abandon them. Reasons like:
- Unrelenting, grinding poverty with no opportunity for escape –so first are the laws on lending to the poor and the forgiving of debts.
- Being enslaved –so next come the laws of releasing the slave after 6 years of service. Not empty handed but with resources to be able to start a new life – the means to feed his/her family, to offer sacrifices to God in thanks.
- Not feeling part of this society but an outcast – so next comes participating in the Holidays as a full participant – along to see the enormous people they are also a part of – who all worship this same God. To understand that God freed us once before and we never forget to thank our God.
- No chance for justice –facing a biased, unfair court system – so next comes Shoftim with its admonitions’ on judging fairly in pursuit of justice.
Step two – recognize the actions of someone whose faith is slipping but not yet become an idolater. Understand and address the reasons behind their losing faith before they are lost to idolatry.
- Who perhaps adds a sacred post either hoping for more help from this God or perhaps to another God who would be more merciful.
- Who perhaps no longer cares enough to sacrifice the best of the flock to God but offers animals that are blemished.
Step three – if someone has slipped and become an idolater – why do we now require two or three witnesses? If there is a witness, the person is practicing idolatry in plain sight. There is no going back now. Or is there?
Of course, requiring two or three witnesses reduces the chance of someone being accused unfairly. But let me offer another possible reason – to give the first witness a chance to stop the idolater, to address what has driven them away, to give them a second chance to repent and change before they must be killed.
And only if all that has all failed, then we need to stop the contagion. Two people can infect two others and so on and the idolatry could spiral out exponentially.
Is this a cruel and unforgiving God? This is a God doing everything possible to avoid idolaters and their punishment – even giving a person who is practicing idolatry a second chance. What could be more compassionate and who could be slower to anger. So why is the second commandment regarding the destruction of the town not repeated? Because it should never be needed if we follow these commandments –each town would stop the contagion themselves. We have been given the commandments we need to follow. In the Promised Land it’s up to us to prevent idolaters, not just God.
So why is this relevant today? It is more relevant than ever. Substitute for stoning – the killing of the spirit, the killing of hope of a future – even for their children. Substitute for enslavement – incarceration. Substitute for justice – a system that guarantees longer sentences and harsher penalties.
What causes disillusionment with society, what causes anger, rioting? The parsha tells us.
Grinding poverty, not feeling part of this society, not getting equal treatment, justice and access to its resources. Feeling like an outcast, a second-class citizen. The real question is not if God is compassionate and slow to anger. The real question is whether we are. And perhaps that is why the parsha is called R’eah -to see.