Parashat Re’eh is perhaps the most visual parashot of the entire Tanaach, well-named “re-eh” or see. Everything pivots around visual perception – what we see in the galut around us, what we build for ourselves, and what other nations perceive about us. Re’eh resonates with policies that seem to invite the censure of all the other nations on earth. A blessing and a curse indeed.
ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה: את-הברכה אשר תשמעו אל-מצות ה’ אלקיכם אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום: והקללה אם-לא תשמעו אל-מצות ה’ אלקיכם וסרתם מן-הדרך אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום ללכת אחרי אלהים אחרים אשר לא-ידעתם:
See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of HaShem your G-d, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of HaShem your G-d, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow the gods of others, that you did not know. (Deut:11:26-27
Everything here is based on external appearance: the attraction of the ways of others is visible – foreign temples, foreign dress, foreign gods. The hidden implication is the curse – what others see causes them to judge us wrongly.
A woman can be shy and modest, choosing not to interact with strangers out of her inherent modesty. Yet she appears to others as standoffish, a snob. “What? Are you so fine that you are too good for the likes of us? Hmmph. We’ll teach you a lesson!”
The nations of the world do not look kindly upon the chosen nation. Rather, they choose to take this concept and apply it to themselves: surely, they think, the concept of “chosen” is an analogy. Every nation thinks of itself somehow as “chosen.” And yet there is one people who sets itself apart in dress, food, agricultural standards, economic habits, and in government. “Just who the hell to they think they are?” ask the other nations. We’ll teach them a lesson!“
And yes, the decrees, the commandments are physical, visual commandments: separate, set aside, set apart. If you fail to do so, you will become exactly as the other nations of the earth:
כי-תשמע באחת עריך אשר ה’ אלקיכם נתן לך לשבת שם לאמר: יצאו אנשים בני-בליעל מקרבך וידיחו את-ישבי עירם לאמר נלכה ונעבדה אליהים אחרם אשר לא-ידעתם: ודרשת וחקרתה ושאלת היטב והנה אמת נכון הדבר נעשתה התועבה הזאת בקרבך הכה תכה את-ישבי העיר ההוא לפי-חרב החרם אתה ואת-כל-אשר-בה ואת-בהמתה לפי-חרב: ואת-כל-שללה תקבץ אל—תוך רחבה ושרפת באש את-העיר ואת-כל—שללה כליל לה’ אלקיך והיתה תל עולם לא תבנה עוד:
If, in one of your cities that HaShem, your G-d, gives you in which to dwell, you hear, saying, “Lawless men have emerged from your midst, and they have caused the dwellers of their city to go astray, saying, ‘Let us go and worship the gods of others, that you did not know’ ” – you shall seek out and investigate, and inquire well, and behold! It is true, the word is correct and this abomination was committed in your midst. You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword; lay it waste and everything that is in it, and its animals, with the edge of the sword. You shall gather together all the booty to the midst of its open square, and you shall burn it in fire, completely the city and all its booty to HaShem your G-d, and it shall be an eternal heap, it shall not be rebuilt.” (Deut.13:13-18)
Many commentators have questioned this pasuk: Ok. Punish the people. But why punish inanimate objects and animals? They are not the ones who have sinned. Why destroy innocent animals and level buildings?
The commandment is to utterly remove all visible remains. Not just that no Jew can derive benefit from them, but that no Jew will see them again, lest he also fall prey to the same temptation to assimilate.
A burnt, smoking wasteland itself is a strong visual reminder – merely by accepting the influence of the outside world. Worshipping the gods of others can bring destruction to our own inheritance, until only a smoking wasteland remains.
If we don’t remind ourselves, others will surely do it for us.