The Land, Worship, and Charity

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Back in Parshat Shelah, we had noticed Meshech Hochmah’s idea that Moshe chose a spy from the half of the tribe of Menasheh who were going to take their share of Israel on the west side of the Jordan, in the hopes it showed a greater love for the Land. A comment in this Parshat Re’eh again gives reason to think Meshech Hochmah saw the east side as “less” Israel.

Moshe’s Desire to Enter

A rabbi from a generation before him (maybe two), R. Dov Ber Meisels, had questioned Ramban’s well-known view there is a Biblical mitzvah to conquer and live in Israel. According to Ramban, Sotah 14a’s discussion of Moshe Rabbenu’s desire to enter Israel has a gaping hole. The Gemara wonders why it mattered so much to him, and answers he wished to fulfill the mitzvot restricted to the land of Israel.

But if entry itself is a mitzvah, as is the conquest, settling, and retention of the Land, it should be obvious why Moshe wanted to enter, asked R. Meisels in his comments on Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot.

Meshech Hochmah rejects his assumption that one fulfills the mitzvah only by crossing the Jordan, because it would mean the tribes of Gad and Reuven never did [at least the wives and children left behind while the men helped with the conquest), an idea he is certain is untrue. By expelling the Emori who lived there, and settling their lands, Gad and Reuven, too, fulfilled the mitzvah. Sotah was asking what more Moshe sought.

But Maybe the West Side is “More” Israel

While he has so far given full “settling of Israel” rights to Gad and Reuven, one phrase throws a bit of a wrench into the works. As he builds to his proof Moshe had already fulfilled the obligation of settling Israel, he says vadai, certainly, as long as kibbush ve-hilluq, conquest and settling of the Land, had not yet occurred. He closes ve-zeh pashut, this is simple (or obvious), when I think he has raised the possibility that after kibbush ve-hilluq of what we call Israel, the other parts, the east side of the Jordan, indeed receded to lesser status.

He does not say it, however, he says only the Gemara could have wondered why Moshe was so anxious to enter Israel even if we accept Ramban’s view there is a mitzvah to settle the Land. At least in his time, Moshe had already fulfilled that mitzvah.

Eliyahu On Mount Carmel Prefigured in Our Parsha

In 12;13, Moshe warns the Jews against offering sacrifices other than in the place where God chooses. On its face, the verse means sacrifices can only happen in the Beit Ha-MikdashMeshech Hochmah points us to Yerushalmi Megillah, where R. Samlai read Eliyahu’s saying he enacted the ceremony by Gd’s Word to mean God’s prior Word, this verse in the Torah.

[Remember, Eliyahu suggested a contest with the prophets and priests of Ba’al, each side offering a sacrifice on Mt. Carmel to their divinity, with whichever one responded confirmed to be the true God. It is a classic example of an hora’at sha’ah, the right of a prophet to violate the Torah temporarily, as long as s/he does not claim to be changing the Torah.

Jewish authorities disagree on whether the prophet must have received a direct command to violate the Torah this way, or can decide it is needed on his/her own.]

I think Meshech Hochmah is bothered by why Yerushalmi would single out this hora’at sha’ah to find a specific source. If hora’at sha’ah is a right/ power of a navi, there is no reason for a verse regarding this example.

Bamot Smack of Idolatry

He finds the answer in VaYikra 17;7, where the Torah explains why sacrifices were allowed only in the Temple, to ensure Jews no longer offer sacrifices to other gods. Jews would offer those on bamot, external altars, making those somewhat places of idolatry even when used for sacrifice to God.

[He based his idea on an allegory in VaYikra Rabbah 22;8 that would take us too far afield to be worth summarizing here; I instead allow myself to point out his idea explains why Melachim speaks several times of a king being “good,” but the people still sacrificed on the bamot. If they were sacrificing to God, as tradition insisted, why would the verse stress it?

Meshech Hochmah’s answer could be that bamot were a gateway act to worshipping other gods, meaning the Jews were on the road to idolatry even during these good kings’ reigns].

Limits on the Hora’at Sha’ah Power

His idea complicates Eliyahu’s right to offer the sacrifice. We usually assume he was acting as an hora’at sha’ah, but hora’at sha’ah does not allow for avodah zarah, however momentary. If bamot have what Meshech Hochmah calls a derara de-hashash avodah zarah, an element of a worry about worship of powers other than God, it should have been disallowed.

The saving grace comes from Yevamot 90a, which accepts hora’ot sha’ah, temporary abrogations of the Torah le-megdar milta, to prevent worse issues. The Gemara could have meant all hora’ot sha’ah need to foster better Jewish observance, but Meshech Hochmah singles out what Eliyahu did, offering sacrifices to God outside of the Temple, says that can only be done to distance people from idolatry.

Had Eliyahu not lived among people deeply involved with Ba’al worship, had he decided it would create a nice moment of connection to God by having a big ceremony on Mt. Carmel, Meshech Hochmah is arguing it would have been forbidden, even as a hora’at sha’ah, because bamot are proto-idolatry. Only the culmination of this incident, the people recognizing God as the sole power to worship—they say Hashem hu ha-Elokim, as we do when we conclude Yom Kippur—their rejecting Ba’al and its priests (putting them to death for their wrongs), justified the choice.

To wean Jews from any other sin, Meshech Hochmah posits (his own novel idea, as far as I know), sacrifices outside the Temple would still not hve been allowed, even as an hora’at sha’ah.

It’s why the verses in our parsha limit sacrifice to a place God has chosen, including Mount Carmel, where the verse continues that there we will do all God has commanded. For Meshech Hochmah, it is saying by this one breach of God’s Word, we as a people will turn away from any other worships and indeed do only what God wants.

Feeding and Clothing the Poor

The Torah commands Jews to open their hands to fellow Jews in need, 15;5. Baba Batra 9a sees a difference among needs, we (and those responsible for dispensing charity) verify clothing needs, give more immediately and less questioningly for food. Meshech Hochmah finds the idea hinted in our verse, the Torah tells us to open our hands lo, to the poor person, a word he takes to mean the person and his/her body. Giving dei mahsoro, all he lacks, is done more judiciously, taking time to be sure the needs are as reported.

Then, I think because we are discussing charity, Meshech Hochmah turns back to Vayikra 25, where the Torah thrice says ki yamuch ahicha, should your brother be in straits. The root mach, to be reduced financially, takes Meshech Hochmah to Vayikra 27;8, where the Torah speaks of a Jew who had promised more than he could give to the Temple, there too using the word mach. The erech there is fifty shekalim, the same as two hundred zuz, the Gemara’s minimal level for accepting charity.

To take charity requires hamachah, reduction to straits, and those blessed with funds must respond immediately with food, after that check out and fill in clothing and other lacks, as possible.

For his time, Moshe had already entered Israel, Meshech Hochmah insists, the rest of us need to know bamot also have idolatrous elements, a reason a prophet must have more than the usual justification for violating this aspect of Torah law, and concern with a poor person’s nutrition takes priority and immediacy over other lacks and needs.

About Gidon Rothstein

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