Saturday, August 7, 2021

Equality and Wealth--What Moses Teaches Us

I delivered this as the d'var Torah (sermon) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on August 7, 2021.

All of us face moments when we very consciously are at the intersection of before and after, of past and future. It may be as we plan out a career change. As we leap into parenthood. As we leave a home where we’ve built a life, to start a new stage in our journey. Or as we end a period of drifting and begin to build a settled life.

That last type of transition is the intersection of past and future at which the Israelites find themselves before crossing the Jordan, and in Parasha Re’eh Moses helps them to establish clear distinctions between the two. At the same time, he draws some threads between them, so we have forever remained bound up with yet separate from our time as wanderers in the desert.

If the Israelites don’t know they are at this at this crossroads—or more accurately cross-river—Moses is going to make sure they figure it out.

As soon as they enter the land, he tells them, they must reaffirm the covenant in a ceremony that will be described when we get to Parasha Ki Tavo in a few weeks. This points to just how transformative it will be to cross the Jordan, that it requires a sort of reboot of our covenant with God.

Then they must destroy any site of worship or sacrifice that will not be the central one. This seems like it would be connected to ensuring there is no vestige of Paganism. But that doesn’t seem to be to be the whole story. Because it’s not only about destroying the prior sites. They also cannot establish any such site anew. There is only one, and it is fixed. Wandering in the desert, the place of God’s presence was, like the entire community, a roving site. But now connection with God, where God inhabits and can be worshipped, is rooted firmly in place. This is so critical, that the people are given permission to slaughter and eat meat where they live, so long as it is not a sacrificial slaughter, so the urge for meat can be satisfied without worrying about creating sacrificial sites that are conveniently close to home.  With the settlement of the people comes the settlement of God in their midst, and by laying it out Moses clearly signals a new phase, the passage from past to future.

I find especially interesting the advice Moses gives on discerning true prophecy from false. Those giving “a sign or a portent” should not be heeded. Instead we must listen to the message –“God’s commandments alone”—and know the difference. We must not be distracted from the substance of God’s word by what appear as wonders. Yet God provided Moses with the ability to perform signs and wonders in order to be believed, in the desert we know God’s presence through visual wonders—a pilar of cloud and fire. So again, the Israelites understand that their world is about to change, and they must change with it. They must live by the firm and fast words of the commandments and no longer be distracted by the types of bells and whistles that until now pulled their attention where it needed to go—but now would only serve to lead them astray.

So what are they learning about this imminent future?

It’s a different life—so different, the covenant needs affirmation there. The change will be so jarring, that they’ll need this ceremonial reminder, this reassertion.

It’s a fixed kind of life—so fixed, that even sacrificial worship, even God’s inhabitance, has one and only one place. No urge to connect with God, wherever one may be,  can warrant sacrifice elsewhere.

It’s a serious kind of life, one that requires substantive discernment to overcome the lure and distraction of visual enticements.

As Moses says, it’s a disciplined life, where “[y]ou shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases.” In return for the land and the security it affords, we have to change. And with that security, we have the wherewithal to change. The insecurities and physical challenges of wandering without a stable home or homeland, with only a memory of slavery behind us, has not left a lot of time, energy or focus for the level of discipline and clarity that Moses is describing.

There’s another big change, which also derives from entering a more secure and stable life. As Rabbi Shai Held puts it in The Heart of Torah, this is a point of “transform[ing] Israel into a community of mutual care and concern.” In this parashah we are told to tithe to sustain the Levites, the strangers, the orphans and the widows; to forgive debts; to “open your hand” to the needy so they will have what they require; to free slaves and when doing so to give them the sustaining assets they need to forge an independent life.

It’s interesting that just before telling the Israelites to care for the needy, Moses says “There shall be no needy among you.” This may seem like a contradiction.

But I believe that it is at the heart of these commandments to care for those in need. It’s a statement of our fundamental equality. Some may need financial help, but we are equally endowed as members of society, and what we do to redistribute wealth more equitably is simply in the service of that basic equality. As Rabbi Held puts it, “The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socioeconomic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.” Quoting biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, he adds “…economic realities are not definitional; rather what is definitional is a common memory of the Exodus; a common blessing in the land; and a common allegiance to the God of Exodus and the land.”

We cannot simply avoid oppressing. We must actively seek to help, taking part with intention in equalizing the stability and security that is endowed to us as we cross the Jordan. If we don’t help the poor, in fact, they should cry out and God will find our lack of generosity beyond toleration—we will be punished. Economic viability is in the service of community viability, and that healthy social fabric is contingent on the economic health of each and every individual.

After Moses lays down these and many other rules for the land and life to come, he moves on the pilgrimage festivals. The Passover sacrifice followed by seven days eating unleavened bread; seven weeks later, to mark the end of the harvest, the Feast of Weeks; and then once the produce is processed, the Feast of Booths.

We have just been lectured on the strikingly different life we must lead in this future, and now we are told to observe festivals that will interweave that future with the past we are leaving.

Passover connects us to our departure from Egypt as we struck out to be desert wanderers. The harvest pull us forward again to a life rooted in a fixed agricultural society. And then Sukkot returns us to our uprooted existence in impermanent structures.

Why should the parashah end this way?

We cannot advance our future without knowing where we are from. Remember Brueggemann’s observation that “what is definitional is a common memory of the Exodus; a common blessing in the land; and a common allegiance to the God of Exodus and the land.”

There is no severing those connections. As sharply different as a future stage in life may be, we build it on and in reaction to the experiences of our past. When Moses tells us to free our slaves, he reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt. By nestling the celebration of the harvest—the quintessential bounty of wealth and security in a settled land—between the experiences of the exodus and our nomadic wandering, we remember where we came from and the hardships we endured on the way to crossing the Jordan. And in remembering that, perhaps we can remember to do our part in equalizing our wealth and security, and thus strengthening the social fabric for all.



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