Parashat R’eih

Friday, August 11, 2017 / 19 Av, 5777
Parashat R’eih Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Dear Friends,
Like many of you, I’ve been reflecting and reacting to events that transpired in Charlottesville last Shabbat.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls Shabbat a cathedral in time in which we break from daily routines of work, commerce and creation in order to find peace, rest and rejuvenation through community and the personal rituals that Shabbat provides. Last Shabbat the windows of that peaceful cathedral were shattered by the violent, hate-filled anti-Semitic chants spewing like poisonous venom from torch-bearing Nazis, Klansmen and White Supremacists.  The footage of them evoked thoughts and images of lynchings in the South, and Pogroms in Eastern Europe.  These racists and anti-Semites (none of whom, by the way are “very fine people”) marched through the streets of Charlottesville, passing its Reform synagogue, instilling fear and dread into Jews and African Americans in particular, and to all those who gathered to protest their message. Please read Alan Zimmerman’s harrowing first-hand account.  
I need not say any more about the responses from the President. You’ve read his words and formed your own opinions.  You’ve come to your own conclusions.
While I have strong personal opinions and reactions, I’ve been struggling to find the right Jewish text to put the events from last week into context.  I am grateful to my colleague Rabbi Alex Kress who shared this piece of wisdom written two generations ago that could provide insight today.
R. Avraham Mordechai of Gur (d.1948) comments on Deuteronomy 13:5 (from this week’s portion, Re’eh):
“It is your God Adonai alone whom you should follow, whom you should fear, whose commandments you should observe, whose orders you should heed, whom you should worship, and to whom you should hold fast…”
He teaches, “the same sentiment is mentioned in the previous parashah, but, while the present verse is in the plural form, in Parashat Eikev it appears in the singular (Deut 10:20). Why, then, is this repeated here in the plural? The reason is that in normal times each person can be God-fearing by themselves, within their own home; at a time of disturbances, though, when heresy and anarchy prevail in the world, the power of the individual is insignificant, and there is need for the pious to combine and to form a mighty force which will defend Judaism against its detractors (emphasis is mine). Therefore here. . .it repeats the same sentiments in the plural form, to indicate the need for the God-fearing to unite against those who would destroy Judaism.”
I don’t know when exactly this was written and I don’t know the context. However, today, the message of a mighty force of unity is important.  Despite the hatred and horror I witnessed, and the two out of three presidential responses that emboldened the marchers, I remain inspired by those who are coming together with candles of peace, not torches of hate to shine a light on the beauty of the diversity of humankind in the face of pure evil.
Tonight I will share brief words during our musical Shabbat service to add to what I’ve written here.  As we prepare to enter into our cathedral in time, may the one who make peace on high, bring peace down to us, speedily and fully, in our time.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin