The Spirit of the Law: Shabbat Re’eh Deuteronomy Chapters 12:26-16:17

August 6, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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I often hear it said that the Torah spends much more time on laws and rituals than on ethical issues.

Too much on fear and not enough on love. But if one were to look at the Torah as a whole, one would soon realize how wrong such a perspective is.  The number of times the Bible talks about love concerning God and human beings, outweighs any other epithet, such as fear, by two to one. Thirty times it talks about how to treat the stranger and the poor. More than any other law. And poverty is the most discussed human state of all.

This week we have a strange contradiction about poverty. On the one hand, Deuteronomy 15:4 says that if you are charitable “There shall be no needy among you—since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

Yet a few sentences later Deuteronomy 15: 7-׃11 continues: “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman… For the poor will never cease in your land.”

On the one hand, the Torah suggests that being charitable will eradicate poverty. On the other hand, poverty will never cease. The two phrases imply both an obligation to try to remedy society but also a realistic assessment of human nature and society. The statement that the poor will never cease reflects reality. There is no such place as Utopia. Not all humans either want or are capable of self-sufficiency. Money does not solve every problem. Some are just lazy. So that poverty has many facets, and the Torah recognizes different circumstances. It is not either black or white.

Earlier in the Torah reading this week there is another essential ethical command.  Deuteronomy Chapters 12: 26 and 28 say that “You must do what is right (and what is good and right) in the sight of God.” But surely all the commandments about ethical behaviour should be enough. Just say “Obey God’s law.” Isn’t the law always just and right automatically?

Sadly, it is not always. You can obey the law in a mean-spirited, literal, automatic way and ignore feelings and exclude sensitivity. The law is supposed to blind, yes, but not soulless.  There can be times to be flexible. This is true with charity, as much as with other laws. This is precisely why the Torah emphasizes the spirit that matters just as much, if not more than the letter. If only people paid more attention to what is actually written in the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom

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