Saturday, 15 August 2015
Dvar Torah parashat re-eh
I was very blessed this summer to have the opportunity to spend three weeks at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I was blessed to be able to learn from teachers and rabbis who helped me make sense of, and stay connected to, rules and laws that were written in another time and another place. I shared this blessing with wonderful people from South America, Australia, Europe and the US. And today I want to share a tiny bit with you.
Today’s parasha is Re-eh which starts with: “See this day I set before you, blessing of you obey the commandments of the lord your god and curses if you don’t listen to the commandments”
It then lays out many rules and laws which for many good reasons no one follows today – like the one about destroying all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods. Or the stoning of prophets and dream-diviners. We don’t follow them like it says in the Torah, no Jews do and they certainly shouldn’t. Because Jews today follow those laws like it says in the Mishnah and the Gemara and then in the courts of local rabbis.
Laws change all the time. Same as they always have for the past two thousand years of Rabbinic Judaism.
Look at this law in re-eh that we read today, for example – the law of shmita, of debt forgiveness for your needy nearest and dearest every seven years so that society has the chance to re-set rich and poor. Then the Torah adds this commandment – “Beware lest you harbour the base thought, The seventh year, the year of shmita is approaching so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.
You will notice that we don’t have debt forgiveness for our needy kinsmen in the seventh year anymore, even though as a people we are generally obsessed with giving to charity and looking after the poor, the widow and the orphan.
And why is that do you think? We don’t have shmita anymore because Hillel overturned it. Hillel was the rabbi and the head of the Beit Din of Hillel who lived hundreds of years after the book of Deuteronomy was written. And in Hillel’s time he noticed people were not lending before the 7th year and so because of Tikun Olam he created a legal fiction called the Prozbul. The Prozbul was a way to get around the shmita D’oreita law by using the Beit Din as an intermediary between the lendor and the lendee.
Poor people could then get the loans they needed if they promised to pay them back to the court. And the lender was happy to lend the money knowing they were going to get their money back from the court. Everyone was happy.
No. Everyone was not happy. Cut forward 100’s of years to Babylon to the period of the Gemara. (Gittin 36b)
The sages are not happy at all with this blatant abrogation of Torah law. All kinds of things are being changed in the name of Tikun Olam. The sages in the Gemara wonder this -when Hillel instituted the Prozbul did he fix it for his generation only for further generations too i.e. ours in 2015 here in London.
They quote the wonderful Mishnah from eduyot alef hey. It asks this; “in any debate in the establishment of Halacha, why do we record the minority opinion against the majority opinion which carries. It answers “Because although no beit din can over turn the Halacha of its fellow beit din, if they prefer the minority opinion one day in the future when the next beit din is bigger and wiser than the beit din before it. But it has to be a bigger and wiser beit din”
One sage in the Gemara is horrified by the fact that Hillel has just changed a torah law and replaced it with a prozbul. Samuel doesn’t want change to biblical law.
He wants to overturn the prozbul. He says the prozbul is an effrontery, an outrage, a disgrace.
Rav Nachman likes the prozbul however, and the halachah goes according to rav Nachman.
The Sugiyah ends with a beautiful construction of verses that says that if you can be offended without offending and do things out of love and be happy in your suffering, it’s all good. Like the sun shining
So I after three weeks at the Conservative Yeshiva, I walked out in the blazing Jerusalem sun and joined the people walking to the Jerusalem Gay pride march, and I was happy to walk among the kids in Independence park who were happy to be alive…
I am here today back in London back at the source of it all reading these verses in re-eh, where all Samuel’s fears about changing Torah law are irrelevant, because we don’t have Hillel’s prozbul anymore, and we don’t even have the shmita either.
Many of us still practise many mitzvot from Re-eh exactly as written – we don’t eat eagles and vultures for example.
Many of us practise the mitzvoth in a slightly different form- peisach, succot and Shavuot for example
But all of us feel the obligation of one mitzvah in Re-eh in particular - and that is the mitzvah of our obligation to the poor. We have to look after the needy among us. That hasn’t changed at all, for any of us.