Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 11 August 2018 / 30 Av 5778

Parshat Re'eh

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Sustaining Self-Worth

This week’s Torah portion contains a host of laws, mostly ones we have already been taught in earlier books. In some cases the order or grouping of these laws does not seem to follow a logical pattern. For example, the prohibition against heeding a false prophet, and the instructions regarding one who incites the public to sin, are followed by the statement, You are children of G-d; do not cut yourselves and do not put a bald spot between your eyes [as a sign of mourning] for a dead person. (Devarim 14:1)

Rav Hirsch explains the connection. The laws relating to a false prophet and an inciter alert the people to those who misuse their influence in order to turn their fellows’ hearts away from G-d — whether that influence derives from their spiritual gifts, their gifts of persuasion, their social position, or familial or close relationship. These gifted individuals are to be avoided if they use those gifts to lead others astray.

The next two prohibitions — against cutting and creating a bald spot in response to death of a loved one — are closely related. Although we tear our clothing when a loved one passes, we are not to make a wound in our flesh or create a permanent bald spot. This would imply that the death of a loved one has caused a breakdown in ourselves and in our bodies, and our mourning is not to extend that far. No matter how dear a person may be to us, his death must not negate or diminish the value and meaning of our own lives. These laws are intended to preserve the individual’s self-worth, which stems from his belonging to G-d. Hence the introduction: You are children of G-d. No human being should have such a strong hold on us that we identify with him to the point of self-nullification, so that when he departs this world we feel compelled to throw ourselves after him.

Both sets of laws, then, warn against excessive devotion to people. The false prophet and inciter alert us to the sway of those who may have won our love and respect, and warn us to keep our commitment to G-d in place at all times. This instruction comes now because the Jews are about to enter the Land, and they will no longer dwell in one camp. This danger can arise more easily once the people are dispersed through the Land. Dwelling in small, scattered settlements, away from the influence of the center, local leaders may gain undue influence.

The Torah here reiterates the prohibitions against cutting and creating a bald spot to remind us that our self-worth is never to be dependent on others, no matter how precious or influential they may be. As children of G-d we are first and foremost related to Him.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 14:1; Vayikra 19:28

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