A. A blessing and a curse. Moshe told the Jews that they must choose between receiving Hashem’s blessing for observing His commandments or suffering His curse for rejecting His laws. A ceremony would be held on the mountains of Gerizim and Eival immediately after entering Israel, during which the consequences of the blessing and curse would be pronounced.
B. Centralized Worship. Moshe set forth a number of religious, civil and social laws which were to regulate the Jews’ life in Israel. He first dealt with the principle of centralized worship, which was directed against the idolatrous practice of individual worship at any site. Sacrifices were to brought only to Hashem’s chosen place, with those portions permitted to the lay worshiper to be eaten there. (However, an animal intended for ordinary consumption, rather than sacrifice, could be slaughtered and eaten anywhere provided its blood was not consumed.)
C. False Prophets/Idol Worship. The Israelites were warned not to imitate the Canaanites’ rites, such as sacrificing living children to their gods. A false prophet who attempted to entice others to worship idols was to be put to death. All of the inhabitants of a city who, after having been investigated, were convicted of idol worship were to be put to death the and city was to be destroyed by fire. Self-infliction of wounds on the body or head as a sign of mourning is prohibited.
D. Kashrus. The Israelites were to refrain from eating anything abominable; Moshe therefore reviewed the Kashrus laws given at Mt. Sinai.
E. Ma’aser Sheini. A second Ma’aser (tithe) consisting of 10% of one’s annual produce was to be brought by every Jew to the Sanctuary and consumed by him there. Any Jew who lived too far away from the Sanctuary to bring this tithe there could instead bring its monetary value with which he was to purchase food there and enjoy a festive meal with his family and the Levi’im. (The Ma’aser Sheni was taken after the Terumah [Kohen’s portion] and Ma’aser Rishon [Levite’s portion] had been removed. It was taken in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th years of the Shemittah year; as noted above, during the 3rd and 6th years, this 10% was given to the poor [a Ma’aser Oni] at home, rather than brought to the Sanctuary; during the 7th year, no tithe is taken.)
F. Shemittah Year. At the end of every Shemittah year (during which the land is to remain fallow), creditors are to release their fellow Jews from any loans which are due (this was, however, not to discourage loans to the poor, for such acts of kindness will be repaid by Hashem). A Hebrew slave who had been sold into bondage was to be freed at the beginning of the seventh year from the day he was sold and liberally assisted with means to enable him to make a fresh start on life; if, however, he chose to remain in his master’s service, his ear was to be pierced as a sign that he selected slavery over freedom (contrary to Hashem’s wishes).
G. The Festivals. In amplifying the laws of Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuos, Moshe emphasized that every Jew was to make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary, bringing with him sacrifices, each according to his means.
II. Divrei Torah
A. Peninim on the Torah (Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum)
A Blessing and a Curse. “Beyond I set before you a blessing and a curse.” This verse is usually interpreted as “I [Hashem] put before you two things — a blessing and a curse — of which you must choose one”. This translation emphasizes two distinct paths — the path of good which leads to life and the path of evil which leads to the contrary. Horav M. Swift offers another interpretation: he renders blessing and curse as being one unit — each blessing carries with the possiblity that through misapplication it can be transformed into a curse. (For example, wealth may lead one to give charity and do other acts of lovingkindness or it may lead one to become more materialistic and self-centered.) The converse is also true with respect to a curse. HaRov Swift notes that this idea is expressed during the Rosh Chodesh (New Month) blessing, in which we ask for a “life in which the wishes of our heart will be fulfilled for the good”. What is the meaning of the words “for the good”? Does anyone desire something that isn’t for the good? Unfortunately, while things may seem to be good in our eyes, they may not be “viewed” by Hashem in the same light. Hashem knows what is truly good for us; we therefore entreat Him to grant us the good which only He knows is truly beneficial for us.
B. Kol Dodi on the Torah (Rabbi David Feinstein)
1. “Seeing” a blessing. “See! I place before you today a blessing and a curse”. Why is the word “see” in the singular form when Moshe was speaking to the entire assembly (as evidenced by the use of the plural word for “you”)? Also, why is the word “see” necessary at all? Each person has his own idea about what is a blessing or a curse. Some would say, for example, that mild illness is a curse, while others would view it as a blessing since it permits us to re-examine our lifestyle and make healthy changes before we suffer worse consequences. Others say the greatest blessing is children, whereas others say it is wealth, etc. When Moshe used the word “see”, it meant that each individual would be given whatever he personally considered a blessing. However, sometimes the things we consider blessings (such as, as noted above, wealth) don’t turn out to be good for us. Conversely, things that seem bad can turn out to be great blessing, such as when someone misses a travel connection and thereby avoids a fatal accident. Thus, Moshe used the word “see” — not only will you be given blessings, but you will actually be able to see how they are blessings for you. (In this vein, someone once defined “Shana Tova Umesucah” [a “good and sweet year”] as a year so sweet that even a child understands that it is good.)
2. Rejoicing in the Festivals. “And you shall rejoice in your Festivals . . . and you shall be only joyous.” Why does this verse, which refers to Sukkos, refer twice to rejoicing? The second reference is a promise that someone who rejoices during Sukkos will merit to be joyful all year long. Why does Sukkos have the power to spread its joyfulness during the entire year? On Sukkos, Hashem makes us leave our homes and their protection in order to make us realize that everything in this world is transitory and that ultimately He protects us, not our material goods and fortresses.
C. Growth Through Torah (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)
1. Appreciate the joy inherent in Torah. “The blessing if you listen to the commandments of the Almighty”. The Ohr Chaim writes that, aside any other blessing, listening to Hashem’s Torah is itself a tremendous blessing and gives one the energy of life. When someone experiences the wonderful taste of Torah, he will feel as if he owes a debt of gratitude to the Giver of such present; rather than demanding a reward for what he does, he will realize that it is he who owes the Almighty.
2. No matter how far you away from Hashem, you can always come close if you make an effort. “After the Almighty your G-d shall you walk . . . ” The Chofetz Chaim notes that the first word denotes a far distance; since this verse is telling us to follow Hashem, why doesn’t the Torah use a word denoting closeness since we should be as close as possible to Him? This teaches us, says the Chofetz Chaim, that regardless of how far a person feels he is from Hashem, he should never give up hope. With all of his power, he should strive to get closer to Hashem. (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once approached a wicked person who had done much wrong during his life and said “I am envious of you; if you will repent and return to Hashem with love and sincerity, all of your blemishes will be transformed into a great shining light. I envy the brilliance of that light.”)
3. Give emotional support to those who need it. “If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren within any of your gates in your land which the Almighty gave you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother.” Ibn Ezra explains the underlined words to mean that you shall not refrain from speaking kind words to his heart. When a person is poor, he suffers more than just financial deprivation; he can easily suffer much emotional pain. Thus, we have an obligation to open our hearts to such person and to talk to him with compassion. Just giving money isn’t enough. Once Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l and a student were rushing to an important meeting and were running quite late. A poor elderly Jew stopped them for a donation and then proceeded to tell Rav Feinstein about his problems. Rav Feinstein gave him a few dollars and stood listening to him as though he had all the time in the world. The student wondered if perhaps Rav Feinstein had concluded that they were too late for the meeting. However, when the poor man finished, Rav Feinstein began to walk even more quickly then before. The student asked him “Why did you stand and listen? Couldn’t you just have given him the money and moved on since we are in such a rush?” Rav Feinstein responded that listening to someone unburden his heart can be worth even more to the person than money.
D. The Chassidic Dimension (the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, z’tl)
The Month of Elul. In the Haftorah of Re’eh, wherein the Jews expressed their anguish at their tempestuous [spiritual] impoverishment that can find no solace merely from the words of the Prophets, for they desired to be united with and consoled by Hashem, Hashem acceded to their request and assured them that it is “I, and I alone, who will console you.” Granting their request is G-d’s response to the Jews’ service — an arousal from Above which follows an arousal from below. This explains why Eikev is always read during the month of Av, and Re’eh is always read on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Elul or on Rosh Chodesh Elul itself. Av is the month during which G-d gave in to his Divine wrath, whereas Elul is the month during which G-d expresses his Divine mercy. During the former month, we feel mostly the doom, distance and concealment epitomized by Eikev, whereas during Elul (during which the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy are dominant) G-d is seen in all of His glory for “it is [He], and [He] alone, who consoles [us].”
E. Living Each Week (Rabbi Abraham Twerski)
1. No one is an island. “See! I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” The Hebrew in this verse mixes the singular and the plural — i.e., the word “see” is singular, whereas the word “you” is plural. The Kli Yakar explains that each individual should feel a sense of responsibility for the multitude. The Talmud states that a person should always conceptualize the world as being composed of an equal number of righteous and sinful people, and should consider him/herself as having an equal number of mitzvos and sins. Since judgment is based upon the majority, if one’s next act is a mitzvah, this will create a majority of mitzvos and if he/she acts righteously, this will create a majority of righteous people. Too often we view ourselves as islands, believing that whatever we do in our personal lives has no bearing on others. Moshe’s message is that this is not so. What we do can either be a blessing or curse for the multitude.
2. To give is to receive. “You shall tithe all the produce of your fields.” The Talmud interprets the words “you shall tithe” to mean “you may become wealthy,” and according to this interpretation, the Torah promises material reward for tithing. One might think that giving charity is depleting his/her assets. Not so, says the Torah. Giving charity does not impoverish, but to the contrary, one receives more than he/she gives.
F. Reflections on the Sedra (Rabbi Zalman Posner)
1. Reward and punishment. Not too unreasonably many people expect that Heaven reward them immediately, or at least with all deliberate speed, for their good deeds. Why should anyone do good or forego illicit acts if not in anticipation of commensurate reward or in dread of punishment? “Behold I give you this day a blessing and a curse.” Note that the blessing and curse are not defined here; reward and punishment are not apart from the good or evil people do. To paraphrase Pirkei Avos, “the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the punishment for sin is sin.” Man becomes a better person through good deeds and less worthy through bad deeds. The blessing of observing mitzvos lies in the observance proper, in man’s striving and progressing toward a goal and ideal above himself. The curse of rejection of mitzvos is the debasement of man, his turning away from the path of righteousness.
2. A holy people. In this Parsha, Moshe cautions the Jewish people again about many observances commanded by Hashem, including the laws of Kashrus. Many popular explanations have emerged for Kashrus. A common explanation is that they are hygienic measures (and thus, some people assume, are now obsolete because of modern science and technology). In the Parsha, however, Moshe declares “for you are a holy people upon the L-rd your G-d.” Here there is no implication of health benefits. The Torah reason for Kashrus is clear, not a matter for guesswork. The Hebrew kodesh (holy) means dedication to a purpose. In all aspects of our lives — not merely in synagogue or on holidays, but also in what we eat, say and in everything we do — we must be dedicated to living a spiritual and “holy” life.
G. Divrei Torah (National Council of Young Israel)
The mitzvah of tzedakah (charity). In the latter portion of this Parsha we read of the mitzvah of tzedakah. Chazal tell us that nature calls for a world of haves and have-nots, as the pasuk says, “for the poor shall never cease out of the land.” It is this very condition of inequity, perceived by humans as an imperfection in G-d’s world, which creates the basis for the mitzvah of tzedakah. We ask, why did G-d create a cruel world where people must beg and scrounge for even the barest necessities of survival? G-d, in His infinite wisdom, gives mankind a hand in building and sustaining the world (“the world is built with kindness”). It is only through acts of kindness performed by humankind that the perceived imperfection is erased and the world becomes whole.