I am quite pleased to be able to offer words of Torah on Parshat Re’eh this year in particular, as my son is called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on this Shabbat at Congregation Beth Shalom.
One of the more curious mitzvot given in Re’eh is that of the ir hanidahat — the city that has been subverted by idolaters, such that all the inhabitants therein are now idolaters as well. The Torah instructs us to burn such a city to the ground, and put all of its inhabitants and its cattle to the sword.
Now, of course, it goes without saying that we do no such thing; in fact, rabbinic literature goes out of its way to make sure that we do not actually put anybody to death, or burn down any cities, despite what the Torah tells us. And in this particular case, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) declares this case to be theoretical. Any city that contains at least one mezuzah, says the Talmud, cannot be an ir nidahat, and what city does not have at least one mezuzah?! As with the ben sorer umoreh, the stubborn and disobedient son, whom the Torah also condemns to death, the rabbis find a workaround on the same Talmudic page.
Why, then, is the ir hanidahat mentioned in the Torah at all, if it is merely theoretical? So that, the Talmud explains, we might use it as an opportunity to teach and interpret some Torah, and thereby receive the appropriate reward for doing so; learning Torah for its own sake, of course, is itself the reward.
Those of us who appreciate the sense of learning Torah as its own reward may occasionally feel that we are vastly outnumbered. It is certainly possible for us to lament the state of affairs in the Jewish world and see growing secularism, intermarriage and disinterest in Jewish institutions as a sign that we are moving into an idolatrous state as a society. For that matter, analogous phenomena are taking place among our non-Jewish friends and colleagues. It is all too easy to see our society as having been completely subverted by idolaters. I am speaking, of course, not about the idols which the Torah references, idols of wood and stone to which people bow. Rather, today’s idols are lucre, Big Data and filling the spiritual gaps in our lives with meaningless material pursuits. The idolatry of distraction, of ephemera, is the modern threat to all our souls.
And yet, amidst all of that emptiness, we still call young women and men to the Torah. We still attempt to fill them with our traditions, our text, our values. We still engage in moments of deep tefillah, prayer, in holy communities throughout the world. Our community just sent 240 participants on a Federation mission to Israel, seven buses of Pittsburghers. There are still plenty of metaphorical mezuzot to be found, and ever so much more. There are still many among us who understand that living Jewishly, that learning from our ancient bookshelf and maintaining our distinctive practices improve our lives and our world. There are even more ways available to learn today, more ways to receive that unique reward, and probably more people engaging with our sacred literature than ever before.
Can we do more? Yes. Can we reach higher? Absolutely. Our Jewish practice, our educational institutions, our leadership must be continually reconsidered and refreshed. We have to keep trying to reach deeper within and without our communities to raise the bar in terms of Jewish engagement. Even as we face idolatrous times, it is up to us, to you who are reading this column, to be an ambassador for Jewish life and learning. You can be that mezuzah. PJC
Rabbi Seth Adelson is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.