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Re'eh 5782: On the Arrogance of Man

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! About a year ago I was driving in rural Pennsylvania and saw the following sign outside of a church: “God didn’t create anything without a purpose, but mosquitos come pretty close.” While humorous, it also underscores a certain truth – we often dismiss things we don’t understand as being either wrong or unnecessary. The attitude seems to be, “If I don’t understand it then it’s obviously not true.”

While it’s okay to have an opinion, it’s not okay to know that your opinion is the only one that’s correct. This arrogance – thinking that your perspective is the only way to see things – is one of the more troubling aspects of our society. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life, pro-gun control or anti-gun control, likely as not you just know that you’re right.

If one were to judge societal ills solely by looking at social media (twitter, Facebook, et al.) or the national media (CNN, Fox, et al.) then the inescapable conclusion would be that division of opinion is tearing this country apart. But that itself is a limited and perhaps even a warped perspective. It’s important to know that both the national media and social media rely on division to build their brand.

In other words, it’s in their self-interest to promote disharmony and confirmation bias. Social media does this through algorithm affiliation – you are fed what the platform thinks you want to see – and the national media promotes stories and opinions with slants that fit into their narrative. Instead of giving you more (and diverse) information, they ply you with stories and opinions that just confirm what you already believe.

In some sense, it has always been this way. Two hundred years ago American politics were just as nasty as they appear to be today and the news outlets similarly cooperated with them then as they do now. This arrogance, knowing that your opinion is the only correct one and that your perspective is the only one that matters, seems to be part of the human condition. This arrogance extends to science and scientists as well.

In May of 1860, Charles Darwin wrote to the Christian botanist Asa Gray, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intent of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that cats should play with mice.”

It is almost astonishing that Darwin was put off from a previous life of religious values by the ichneumon “fly” – a member of the wasp family. He couldn’t reconcile the fact that a benevolent God would create a being that deposits its young as eggs into caterpillars who then begin their lives as parasites devouring their hosts from the inside, usually killing their hosts by the time they are ready to pupate and enter adulthood.

Darwin, who had grown up deeply religious, was totally incapable of understanding that a “beneficent and omnipotent God” may have a larger and more complete perspective. It is almost difficult to comprehend that someone who purports to believe in an all-mighty creator cannot fathom the infinitely wide chasm between their perspectives. The fact that Darwin applied his value system on what he believed should be the definition of a “beneficent” God is telling.

If we discarded everything we didn’t understand as being either untrue or downright stupid, then we would have difficulty functioning in this world. For example, the concept of gravity is very difficult to truly grasp – any two particles of matter attract one another with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them (did you get that?). Most people, if they had to wrap their mind around the theory of gravity, would just conclude that, somehow, magic was involved. Happily, it seems that nearly everyone is resigned to the fact that they do not have to understand everything, and that things can exist even if they are beyond their comprehension.

One of the incredible treasures of the Jewish people is the several thousand years’ worth of wisdom that is part and parcel of their heritage. Of course, Darwin’s struggle to understand creations that seem to contradict his value system had already been discussed by the sages thousands of years before Darwin was born.

There is a fascinating Midrash (found in the Otzar Midrashim under the name The Aleph Bet of Ben Sira – Letter Tet) that relates a story about King David when he was a just a lad. The future king was playing in his garden and he saw a wasp eating a spider, whereupon a fool arrived with a stick and proceeded to mindlessly eliminate both the wasp and the spider.

David said to the Almighty, “What is the benefit to the world to have these creatures? The wasp stings yet receives no pleasure from it, the spider weaves all day but wears no clothes, and the fool with no intelligence comes and mindlessly harms creatures and has no understanding of Your unity and power?” God answered David, “Why are you slandering my creations? There will come a time that you will need each one and you will come to understand the reason for each.”

The Midrash goes on to explain that three events occurred in the future king’s life that gave him an insight into all of them. After King Saul became murderously jealous of the success of David (captain of his armies) and plotted to eliminate David, he fled for his life with King Saul in hot pursuit. David came upon a cave, quickly entered, and hid in one of the inner chambers.

After he entered a spider immediately spun a web across the mouth of the entrance to the inner cave. When King Saul and his men began to search the cave Saul told his men not to bother with the entrance that had been covered by the spider’s web because “anyone entering it would have shredded the web across the entrance.” The future king of Israel was thus saved and when the danger had passed and he was finally able to leave his hiding place he looked for the spider and exclaimed, “Blessed are you and blessed is the one who created you! Who can compare to the wonderful deeds of the Almighty whose deeds are good and just!”

The Midrash gives similar stories relating to the wasp and fool. In fact, King David composed a Psalm to commemorate the time he escaped the clutches of King Saul by running to the Philistines, sworn enemies of the Jewish nation. Unfortunately, Abimelech, the Philistine king, immediately recognized Israel’s greatest warrior and threatened him with death (King David had a rough life). David pretended to be insane and impersonated a fool (according the Midrash this was a sore point for Abimelech as he had a daughter who was actually insane). His behavior so disgusted Abimelech that he drove him away – and once again his life was spared (see I Samuel 21:11-16). King David composed Psalm 34 to commemorate this rather remarkable episode in his life.

There is another Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 10:1) that quotes Rabbi Acha son of Rabbi Chanina as saying, “Everything you see as superfluous in this world – like snakes and scorpions – are part of the greater scheme of the creation of the world.” The Talmud also delves into the question of God creating seemingly useless creatures, with Rabbi Yehuda providing rationale to explain some and then implying that even if the purpose isn’t easily discernible it’s due to our limited understanding, not a shortcoming of the Creator.

Similarly, the great medieval commentator Nachmanides explains that even though we are given permission to benefit from the animal kingdom we are prohibited from eliminating a species. He uses this rationale to explain certain commandments that appear in the book of Deuteronomy.

In this week’s Torah reading we have a verse that, on the surface, also seems almost impossible to comprehend.
For destitute people will not cease to exist within the land; because of this I command you saying ‘you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to the destitute in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:11).

The Talmud (Shabbos 151b) cites this verse and explains that even in messianic times there will always be poor people. What kind of system did the Almighty create in which there will always be those who are destitute? What possible reason could there be for an infrastructure of poverty in our society? What are we to learn from this?

The creation of the world was the vehicle through which the Almighty chose to bestow the ultimate good on mankind. Therefore, the very act of creation was an act of kindness. Our forefather Abraham recognized that the real way to bring the Almighty into this world is to emulate him and do acts of kindness. Thus, doing acts of charity is the ultimate way of connecting to God because we are acting in a God-like manner. This is the perfect expression of the very purpose of creation. In this way we stay connected to the purpose of creation and it gives us the opportunity to emulate the Almighty and bring Him down into our world.

Torah Portion of the Week

Re'eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17

This week is a jam-packed portion. It begins with a choice: “I set before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing: if you obey the commandments of God […]; the curse if you do not […] and you follow other gods.”

The portion continues with rules and laws for the Land of Israel, primarily oriented towards staying away from idol worship and the other religions in the land. In verses 13:1-12 you will find the section that caused a missionary’s face to blanch and silenced him from continuing to proselytize a renowned rabbi.

One of the indications of the existence and necessity of the Oral Torah – an explanation and clarification (later redacted as the Talmud) of the written Torah (The Five Books of Moses) – comes from verse 12:21, “You will slaughter animals […] according to the manner I (God) have prescribed.” Nowhere in the Torah are we instructed in the manner of shechita, ritual slaughter. One might conclude that there was a very sloppy editor. Or one might conclude that there are additional teachings (the Oral Law/Talmud) clarifying and amplifying the written Word.

The source of the Chosen People concept is brought this week: “You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord. God has chosen you from all nations on the face of the earth to be His own special nation” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2).We are chosen for responsibility, not privilege – to act morally and to be a “light unto the nations.”

The portion then gives instructions regarding: permitted and forbidden foods, the Second Tithe, remissions of loans every 7 years, treatment of those in need (to be warm-hearted and open-handed), a Jewish bondsman, and the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot).

Candle Lighting Times

People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.
— Isaac Asimov

Dedicated in Memory of Rabbi Packouz:

a learned, dedicated, accepting, loving, man who should be emulated.

— Rand Pellegrino

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