Reeh: In a world of abundance, will charity, God be forgotten


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Numbers 28:9-15

Isaiah 66:1-24

"Where are you?" God asked, after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit and hid in the Garden of Eden.

The question was a test, not a request for location. God knew exactly where they were.

Instead, the question was intended to stimulate the deeper inquiry: "What have you done?" "Do you know where you are?"

In this scene, the biblical author set the tone for the recurring theme of being tested.

Cain's response, "Am I my brother's keeper?" to God's inquiry, "Where is your brother Abel?" demonstrated that he did not pass the test. Sarah and Abraham's faith was tested by the promise of a child although they were both well past child-bearing age. The story of the binding of Isaac has frustrated scholars because there is no agreement about what the test was, who was being tested, or if anyone actually passed it.

Leah, passed off as her younger sibling, faced a man who would not and did not love her. Joseph was tested when Potiphar's wife made advances toward him and by his brothers who stood before an unrecognized, thoroughly Egyptianized Joseph who toyed with them and considered revenge against them for having been sold into slavery.

Torah readings at this season of the year note some of the tests that Moses endured as he led the Israelites through the wilderness: complaints about accommodations and provisions, worship of the alien golden calf in spite of the array of miracles performed for them, failure to enter the Promised Land. Each biblical character experienced a test of adversity or endurance.

This week's Torah portion, Re'eh, reveals a test the Israelites were warned about:

"For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him" (Deuteronomy 13:4-5).

The followers of false prophets or dream-diviners were to be put to death. Furthermore, the same fate was prescribed for any relative who advocated apostasy. A town that accepted alien gods had to be destroyed and never be rebuilt.

Of all the tests our biblical ancestors had to endure, one remains the most fascinating. The Israelites were reminded of the ultimate test: whether they would set aside tithes from the rich harvests of grain, wine and oil to care for "the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow" (Deut. 14:29). Thus, the admonition, "You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy kinsman in your land." (Deut. 15:11).

That is the supreme test: not to forget charitable acts of generosity and kindness in the midst of the abundance described earlier in Deuteronomy. Last week's Torah portion, Ekev, contains the warning:

"When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God — who freed you from the great and terrible wilderness…and you say to yourselves, `My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me'" (Deut. 8:12-17).

The supreme test in the Torah is the ability to deal judiciously and justly with abundance. When afraid and vulnerable, people are more apt to be faithful and charitable. But when faced with abundance, is personal success taken for granted? In the face of comfort, will God be forgotten? Will hands filled with riches close over the open hands of the destitute and the homeless poor?

The Hebrew word re'eh means "see." The text could easily have begun without that word by simply stating the opening words: "I have set before you blessing and curse." But the word "re'eh" was selected to begin the portion because each individual is commanded to see beyond the good life to the plight of those in need. "There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land" (Deut. 15:11).