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This special sidra, only read in the diaspora by Conservative and Orthodox Jews at the end of Passover, tells us much about the political and religious situation in Judah during the reign of Josiah (640–609 BCE). Josiah became king at the age of eight after the assassination of his father Amon; when he was 26 years old (622 BCE) the “book of the law” was discovered in the Temple and its discovery culminated in a religious reformation which included a national celebration of Passover. The “book of the law” is now widely considered to have consisted of parts of the current book of Deuteronomy. Many scholars maintain that the reformation was already underway during Josiah’s reign, and point to 2 Chron. 34:3 as evidence of this. A reformation could have started during Manassah’s reign (698–643 BCE), resulting from his excesses and social injustices as king and his complete subservience to Assyria. Although 2 Chronicles speaks about Manassah’s repentance late in his rule, the fact that his son Amon, vilified as “evil” in 2 Kings, ruled only two years before being murdered, suggests that some form of reformation was already in progress.
That was the political situation when Josiah came to the throne. Placed there by “the people of the land,” most likely meaning the wealthy landowners, Josiah was a figurehead king during his early years. When he came into his majority, strongly influenced by the Temple priests and well versed in stories of the evils of his father and grandfather, he introduced this “book of the law.” The early part of Josiah’s reign was a period of turmoil in the middle east; as Assyrian power was collapsing Judah was able to reassert its independence, and by now the prophetic traditions of the northern kingdom, Israel, were well integrated in Judah. Against this political backdrop pressures were building to introduce social and religious reforms and to curb the king’s absolute power.
Some of the most serious issues faced by the Temple priests were the widespread practice of idolatry, assuring the importance of the central worship cult, support of the priesthood, and restoring social justice. These themes are emphasized throughout the entire parashah of Re’eh. The exhortation against idolatry appears in Deut. 12:2–3, and in chapter 13, and repeated references to “eating blood” and one to child sacrifice imply that these were widespread practices. Chapter 13 contains a description of how an idolatrous town was to be utterly destroyed—men, women, children, beasts, property—an instruction that provoked extensive later commentary about the injustice of such extreme measures.
The central sacrificial cult would have been affected by a king having absolute power and the widespread practice of idolatry. Thus we see in Deuteronomy, and especially in this sidra, very clear instruction on the need for centralized worship, but loosened slightly to allow those residing far from Jerusalem to be able to eat meat without requiring its sacrifice. We did not read those earlier sections today so you’ll need to come back in late August if you want to cover that part of Re’eh.
With the reassertion of the importance of the sacrificial cult and the duties of the Temple priests, it became necessary to restate the need for supporting the Levite priests. Statements to this effect are found throughout the sidra. The most direct statement is “Be sure not to neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land” (Deut. 12:19), but this theme is found throughout chapter 12 and repeated again at the end of chapter 14, which we did read today.
The importance of social reforms is emphasized in this parashah by a commandment to give a “personal tithe”:
You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing… You shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of the Lord your God… Should the distance be too great for you,… you may convert them into money… and spend the money on anything you want—cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire. And you shall feast there, in the presence of the Lord your God, and rejoice with your household. (14:22–26)
This tithe is not for the benefit of the priesthood; it’s solely for the owner of the land’s produce in thanksgiving for God’s providence.
The statement of social needs continues in chapter 15, where support of the poor is discussed.
If, however, there is a needy person among you, … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs… For 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. (15:7–11)
Although these verses specifically refer to lending just prior to the sabbatical year, their intent concerning support of the poor is clear.
When we reach chapter 16, we see here the reading’s clear reference to Passover; here the portion gives the Passover laws of Josiah’s times. Here we see changes from the laws given in Exodus, specifically in parashat Bo, which we read last week. In Bo, the people were to slaughter and consume the Pesach offering at their homes. Now, in Josiah’s time, the Pesach offering could be slaughtered and eaten only at the Temple and this rite would obviously be under the control of the priesthood.
Thus in this parashah we once again find that where the laws stated in earlier books, specifically in Exodus and Leviticus, are repeated, they are stated in a way that justifies their social value or emphasizes the importance of the central sacrificial cult.
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