• Rav Yaakov Beasley






In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Parashat Re’eh marks a turning point in Moshe’s second discourse to the Jewish people.  For the last two parashiyot, Moshe has outlined the fundamentals of Jewish belief; now, he turns his attention to the halakhot, the laws that will guide their day-to-day behavior.  He begins with the laws that describe the sanctity of the Land of Israel, and the rituals and prohibitions that will accompany the centralization of the service in Jerusalem, and its effect on the dietary habits of the people.  The punishments that accompany false prophets and the inhabitants of a wayward city follow.  Before the parasha ends, the listener will hear about the financial aspects of debt cancellation, behavior appropriate to festivals, the need to mark the firstborn flocks, and the various tithes due the Kohanim and Levi’im. 


However, the switch from philosophical discourse to legal treatise is not smooth.  Even when discussing the regulations regarding mourning, we note that the laws are framed between two decidedly non-legalistic statements:


"You are children of Hashem your G-d. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to Hashem your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, Hashem has chosen you to be His treasured possession" (Deut. 14: 1-2).


Jewish tradition has interpreted these words in often surprising directions.  They inspired Rabbi Akiva’s famous maxim: "Beloved is man because he was created in the image [of God]. Beloved are Israel for they are called children of the All-present" (Avot 3: 14). Chazal imaginatively understood the prohibition of "Do not cut yourselves" as referring to the Jewish body politic, prohibiting divisions within the community (Yevamot 14a). A person cannot practice against the community’s custom; a single town should not have two or more religious courts giving different rulings.


However, it is clear that the plain sense of the verses refers to what is appropriate behavior at a time of bereavement. Even when coping with the death of a loved one, a Jew is commanded not to engage in excessive rituals of grief. Despite the shattering experience of the death of a family member, the Torah proscribes wild expressions of sorrow, whether it is lacerating one's flesh, or tearing out one's hair.  We are not required to stoically assume all sufferings without pain or reaction; Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt"l often stated that a person who observed all of the eleven required expressions of mourning without internally feeling any sadness or discomfort did not perform the commandment of mourning.  However, sadness and grief that destroys boundaries, suggests the Torah, is not fitting to a holy people.  Why is this so?


To answer this question, we shall look first at later appearances of mourners that lacerate their flesh and tear out their hair in the Tanakh, and then examine the relationship between the prohibitions and the surrounding statements of the uniqueness of the Jewish people. 


The prophet Yermiyahu lived at the end of the seventh century B.C.E. Many of his prophecies attempted to inspire the Jewish people towards repentance by describing for them the upcoming calamities that they faced if they continued on their present path of licentiousness.  Chapter 16 contains some of the bleakest prophecies recorded in the Tanakh.  Yermiyahu advises the people not to marry or bring forth children in the land of Israel for they will only end up burying their carcasses:


1 The word of Hashem came also unto me, saying: 2 You shall not take thee a wife, neither shall you have sons or daughters in this place. {S} 3 For thus says Hashem concerning the sons and concerning the daughters that are born in this place, and concerning their mothers that bore them, and concerning their fathers that begot them in this land: 4 They shall die of grievous deaths; they shall not be lamented, neither shall they be buried, they shall be as dung upon the face of the ground; and they shall be consumed by the sword, and by famine; and their carcasses shall be meat for the fowls of heaven, and for the beasts of the earth. {S} 5 For thus says Hashem: Enter not into the house of mourning, neither go to lament, neither bemoan them; for I have taken away My peace from this people, says Hashem, even mercy and compassion. 6 Both the great and the small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried; neither shall men lament for them, nor cut themselves, nor make themselves bald for them; 7 neither shall men break bread for them in mourning, to comfort them for the dead; neither shall men give them the cup of consolation to drink for their father or for their mother. 8 And you shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them, to eat and to drink.  (16:1-8)


Both Rashi and the Redak attempt to explain the warning against self-laceration or tearing their hair out in verse 6, if in fact the Torah had prohibited them in our parasha.  Rashi suggests that though these behaviors are forbidden, they were prevalent enough among the surrounding peoples to be understood as symbols of mourning.  The Redak goes one step further and suggests that even the Jewish people were engaged in these behaviors, despite the prohibition mentioned above.  He also suggests that the nature of the catastrophes and misfortunes that would strike the people would be so numerous that they would be unable to escape for a moment to tear out their hair or gash themselves, even if they so desired. 


That the Tanakh sees a linkage between these mourning customs and the surrounding idolatrous culture is also strongly alluded to in the encounter between Eliyahu and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In 1 Kings 18, Eliyahu challenges them to a test: Let us each make a sacrifice and see which of us can bring down fire from heaven. The Baal prophets accept the challenge, and begin their service in front of the entire people:


Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Eliyahu began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is relieving himself, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. (I Kings 18:26-28)


Though this was not performed as a mourning ritual, it provides us with a graphic connection between the rite of self-laceration and idol worship. Clearly, the Torah wishes to emphasize that this behavior as incompatible with kedusha, holiness. Why?  To answer, we should analyze how the commentators understood the interpolation between the commandment of restraint in mourning with our being the "children of Hashem our G-d," a holy and chosen people?


[1] The Ibn Ezra says that just as a father may cause a child pain for his or her long-term good, so God sometimes brings us pain - here, bereavement - which we must accept in trust without an excessive show of grief. The equation he suggests is that a person of true faith will accept his sufferings without any excessive reaction.

[2] The Ramban suggests that it is our belief in the immortality of the soul that is why we should not grieve overmuch. Even so, he adds, we are right to mourn within the parameters set by Jewish law since, even if death is only a parting, every parting is painful.  Unlike the Ibn Ezra, the father image of God is not of the benevolent punisher, but an Eternal father whose timelessness we share.

[3] R. Ovadiah Sforno and the Chizkuni say that because we are "children of God" we are never completely orphaned. A Jew must internalize that though we may lose our earthly parents, we are never without our ultimate Father; therefore, we place limits to our grieving.

[4] Rabbenu Meyuchas suggests that just as members of royalty do not defile themselves by causing disfiguring injuries on their persons, the Jewish people, who are children of the supreme King - may not do so either.


However we understand the relationship between the parts of the verses, the fundamental principle is clear.  What the Torah strives to create is a balance between too much and too little grief. Halakha, Jewish law, delineates several stages of bereavement: aninut (the period between the death and burial), shiva (the week of mourning), sheloshim (thirty days in the case of other relatives) and shana (a year in the case of parents). Each stage has its own qualities and requirements:  the initial, numbing moment of loss itself, when a person does not engage in any positive commandments to concentrate on the burial; the return home from the funeral to be comforted by friends and community; to extended periods when the mourner slowly reintegrates himself into daily life, yet does not engage in activities associated with joy. However, though bounded, the mourner is given reign to express their sorrow.  In his legal code, the Rambam outlines the balance as follows:


“Whoever does not mourn the dead in the manner enjoined by the rabbis is cruel [achzari] – lacking in sensitivity.” (Hilkhot Avel 13: 12). At the same time, however, "One should not indulge in excessive grief over one's dead, for it is said, 'Weep not for the dead, nor bemoan him' [Yer. 22: 10], that is to say, weep not too much, for that is the way of the world, and he who frets over the way of the world is a fool" (ibid. 13: 11).


We shall conclude which an insight first noted by the Ramban in his commentary.  This is not the first appearance in the Torah of prohibitions against excessive mourning.  They appear first in Parashat Emor:


Hashem said to Moshe, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: A kohen may not defile himself for any of his people who die, except for a close relative . . . They may not shave their heads or shave the edges of their beards or cut their bodies. They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God." (Vayikra 21: 1-6)


There it applies specifically to kohanim, priests, because of their holiness. What Moshe does is expand these rules to the people as a whole (a difference noted in the original audiences; Sefer Vayikra is mainly a set of instructions to the priests, while Sefer Devarim presents Moshe's addresses to the whole people). By applying the laws of sanctity that apply to priests to the entire people, Moshe is demonstrating the democratization of holiness that is central to the Torah idea of "a kingdom of priests."   Ultimately, Judaism rejects the centralization of ritual behavior among a closed cadre of priests.  From here, we understand how Rabbi Akiva could derive from these verses the universal impulse that animates the Torah.