The Difference Between Light and Darkness
D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
August 18, 2017
The laws enumerated in the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, have been criticized as excessively strict. This week’s portion, Re’eh (“Behold,” Deut. 11:26—16:17) is a case in point. Referring to contemporary foreign cults and idol worship, Deuteronomy demands nothing short of complete destruction. “You shall utterly destroy… their gods… And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place” (Deut. 12:2-3). There is little room for doubt. The Torah states its case clearly, without equivocation or ambiguity.
However, the harshness of these decrees must be viewed in light of the times in which they were written.
Around the year 900 BCE, following a period of great civil unrest, the Kingdom of David broke into two parts: the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Nearly two centuries later, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom, and now they set their eyes on the bigger prize, Jerusalem. With the threat of war and destruction imminent, terror gripped the Judeans and some went as far as to offer prayer and sacrifice to just about anything and everything under the sun.
In the general disarray, many cast justice aside, and there were even those who sought to reap fortunes from the chaos and confusion. God’s commandments of compassion and kindness were abandoned. Laws governing civil behavior—including rules regulating the harsh and inhumane treatment of slaves (the labor force of the time)—were no longer observed or enforced. The earth’s resources were being depleted with little concern for conservation and replenishment. The entire civilization was in danger of collapsing from within. It was with this in mind that the Deuteronomist warned: “You shall not do as all the things that we do here this day, every man [doing] what he deems fit“ (Deut. 12:8).
This portion does not mince words. There IS right and wrong, it says. Especially at times of upheaval, when moral direction fades and people take to doing as they see fit, there can be no equivocation, no obfuscation of the law in such a way as to permit violence and hate. At such times, the moral compass must be realigned, leaving little room for doubt, to establish clearly and for the ages the difference between right and wrong, between holy and evil.
Now nearly three thousand years later, it seems that the common saying, “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” still stands true.
In the past decades we have seen many changes in our lives. Globalization and the high tech revolution have brought about vast fluctuations in the job and production markets. Medical breakthroughs have extended life expectancy, but not without a huge increase in the expenses associated with living longer.
The 20th century saw other changes as well—ancient empires crumbled and fell; new nations emerged; alliances shifted; power changed hands.
In America, the vast social turmoil that followed World War II reached a peak in the 1960’s, with groups that had previously been marginalized and discriminated against now claiming their rightful place in society and the economy. African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, Hispanics, Jews and other minorities demanded equal rights and wider recognition for their contributions to this great country.
Now, half a century later, the pendulum seems to have swung back again. Aided and abetted by religious extremism and nationalistic fanaticism, reactionary right-wing populism is sweeping the world. Today, what began as a grassroots movement has become a wildfire that threatens the very core of America’s soul.
The election of Donald Trump galvanized and energized groups that until recently had been relegated to the fringes of society. There is a direct line of relationship between Nazi Germany and this summer’s double vandalism at the Boston Holocaust Memorial. There is a clear line between racist lynchings in the 1920’s and the June 2015 massacre of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by white supremacist Dylan Roof. And all these lines of evil came together last Friday night, exactly one week ago, at the Alt-Right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA.
For many of these hate groups, Trump’s election was seen as a personal affirmation. And Trump’s failure last Saturday to denounce the Nazis and white supremacist marchers, and in fact his praise, three days later, of the “very fine people” who supposedly were also there amongst the torch-bearing, anti-Semitic epithet-spitting mob, drew words of thanks and high praise from David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
What Trump angrily and repeatedly emphasized was that there was violence on both sides of the Charlottesville rally. That much is true. It is also true that historically there have been—and still are—leftist extremists who have resorted to violence. But to equate between them all is to make a mockery of right and wrong. There can be no equivalence between a group that preaches bigotry and hate, and a counter-group that calls for inclusiveness and diversity. There is a world of difference between racist neo-Nazis, and those who would resist their hateful, murderous ideology. To equate between “all sides” is in fact to allow each person to do as “he deems fit” and to encourage even more acts of evil, violence and hate.
This is the message of Re’eh, “Behold,” a message that is as true today as it was three thousand years ago. There can be no equivalence. There IS right and wrong in this world. And now is the time to clarify, not to obfuscate, the world of difference between them.
It’s the difference between light and darkness, between life and destruction. It’s an ancient lesson, yet one that our country needs to embrace now more than ever. It’s our very soul that is at stake.
May the lights of these Shabbat candles show us the way to the promised lights of an even greater Shabbat, a great Sabbath that will shine brightly with justice and compassion, with kindness and love between all God’s creatures, for all of God’s creation.
Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. Amen.
© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman