I currently serve as the chairperson of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national Jewish anti-hunger organization whose stated goal is to end hunger for people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. When I think about the work we do at Mazon, and especially when I speak with others about it, I always begin with a fundamental question — what kind of society do we want to live in? By which I mean, what are our responsibilities to those around us, those within our group (however you might define “our group”) and those outside of our group.
While for me, these questions lead on a direct path to Mazon’s pursuit of lobbying and government support for those who are hungry and food insecure, when applied to this week’s Torah reading, the same question might lead us down a different path. Parashat Re’eh helps us understand the kind of society for which the Torah is advocating, the kind of society that we are supposed to look toward in order to better understand our current obligations to each other.
Because ancient Israelite society was predominantly agrarian, it was through agricultural laws that norms and values were expressed. (This notion was beautifully expressed in a 2015 dvar Torah by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, z’’l.) There were three elements to these values. The first was the alleviation of poverty (think of the mitzvot of leket, shechichah, pe’ah, sh’mitah and yovel), the second was supporting the priests and Levites (terumah, ma’aser rishon), and the third was personal and spiritual (bringing first fruits, observing the three pilgrimage festivals).
One law in our Torah reading does not seem to fit easily within this rubric — the law of the ma’aser sheini, the second tithe, in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the sh’mitah cycle. During the other years of the cycle the second tithe was given to the poor, but during the years in question the Second Tithe needed to be taken by the farmer to Jerusalem and eaten there. The question is why this needed to be done-what was the purpose?
Sefer HaChinuch, an anonymous 13th century compilation of mitzvot, tells us that this mitzvah was meant to encourage people to study Torah. When people would come to Jerusalem with this money, they would stay for a while in Jerusalem and study, all the while being influenced by the powerful mood and atmosphere of the Holy City.
Rambam, on the other hand, provides a very different explanation in “The Guide for the Perplexed.” Rambam understands that since the second tithe had to be eaten in Jerusalem, the owner was compelled to share what he brought with others. In this way, Rambam continues, the farmer would gather community members around him and would strengthen the bonds of love and social-togetherness through his largesse.
What Rambam is describing is nothing more or less than the pull of community. In his view, the Torah is leading us down a path so that we can experience the power of community ourselves, in order for us to benefit those around us and to grow as individual human beings. For Rambam, this is the kind of society that the Torah wants us to create, a society that takes care of the poor, that supports those who are not able to own their own land (the priests and Levites) and that encourages us to strengthen bonds between people so that we can all feel connected to each other, part of something larger than ourselves and included in society, rather than excluded and marginalized.
What might this look like in today’s day and age? For me, it is not only the actions I take as an individual and as a community leader, it is also the work I do with Mazon, pushing our state and national government to never forget those in need, to help those who are hungry, to provide a basic safety net not only because it makes financial sense, but also (and perhaps primarily) because that is the kind of society that I want to live in and that I want to help create.
Answer for yourself this question — what kind of society would you like to live in? How might that society be created or nurtured? Parashat Re’eh asks us to delve deeply into those questions and then to roll up our sleeves and get to work. As we begin the month of Elul this Sunday, August 28, we understand that the High Holy Days are fast approaching, and that our time to reflect on our actions as individuals and as a society is at hand. As we hear the shofar blown each weekday morning during Elul, we should ask ourselves these questions from Parashat Re’eh. What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of society do I want to live in? And what am I doing to make my answers to these two questions a reality?
Together, person by person, community by community, we can change what is into what should be.