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Hashem’s Children – A Comfort and an Obligation

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley



Hashem’s Children – A Comfort and an Obligation

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Parashat Re’eh marks a turning point in Moshe’s second discourse to the Jewish people, as the subject changes from outlining the philosophical underpinnings of the Torah to the legal and halachic obligations it entails.  First, Moshe begins with laws that describe the sanctity of the Land of Israel, rituals and prohibitions that will accompany the centralization of the service in Jerusalem, and its effect on the dietary habits of the people.  Next, he continues with the punishments that accompany false prophets and the inhabitants of a wayward city follow.  Later, the parasha discusses 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, though the parasha is a decidedly legal text, the Torah does not ignore the ethical and axiological lessons that these laws imply.  Like last year, we will concentrate on the laws that guide how the Jew is to behave when confronted with that most difficult of circumstances – the death of a loved one, and discuss how the Torah combines values with laws.   


"You are children of Hashem your God. 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" (Devarim 14: 1-2).


The text opens, “You are children of Hashem,” and clearly this is an introduction and rationale for the laws that follow – not to cut oneself or shave the front of the head.  However, why did the Torah write another reason, "For you are a holy people"?  Here is how the commentators approached this difficulty:


Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy, chapter 14, verse 1:  And the purpose of sons, after you will know that you are the sons of God and He loves you more than a father to a son, you shall not gash yourselves over anything that He will do because all that He does is for the good and if you do not understand Him, as small sons do not understand their fathers' deeds, trust Him and so too do (what He asks of you) because you are a holy nation and you are not like all the other nations, therefore do not do those deeds that they do.


Ibn Ezra connects the cause, "You are the sons of God", to the prohibition of gashing themselves. We may not cause ourselves too much sorrow over the "disaster" that occurred, because we are the sons of God and we must trust in this, that His thoughts and intentions are for our benefit, like a father to his children.  The second reason: "because you are a holy nation" he explains as a way of negative reasoning. Since we are a holy nation it is not worthy that we behave as the other nations that are not holy. However Ibn Ezra views this second argument also as an argument for the prohibition of foods that are subsequently mentioned.  His views are mentioned approvingly by the Ramban:


Ramban chapter 14, verse 1-2:   You are the sons of the Lord your God, this is also an explicit commandment stated in the Torah about the Kohanim, (Leviticus 21:5) They shall not make baldness of their head...nor make any cuttings in their flesh. Here it is explained that this (tenet) was not only for the Kohanim, [though] it is stated elsewhere that they are holy to their God, and they are commanded there on this but that the entire community is holy. You are all sons of the Lord your God like the Kohanim. Therefore, you too must perform this commandment like them (the Kohanim)... (afterwards he brings the statements of Ibn Ezra above):


In my opinion, the reason for "a holy nation" is to promise to sustain the souls of those before Him the Blessed One. It may be said that since you are a holy nation and a special possession to God and the Lord will not lift up one's soul and He made serious considerations so as not to banish from Himself the exiled, it is not fitting for you to gash and to make baldness over [the loss of] a soul, even if he dies as a youth.   But the Scriptures do not prohibit weeping, as nature will be awakened to cry at the separation of loved ones and those who wander away even though they live. On this, our sages relied (Moed Katan 27): By prohibiting one from mourning on a soul over duly.


Ramban does not think, that each reason relates to a different prohibition (for a differing view, see the Ha-Emek Davar) but rather they are two rationales for the same prohibition. "Sons" is a name for the status of the nation of Israel as Kohanim.  Therefore, as aristocrats, they are not to act like other nations when grieving (this is similar to the Ibn Ezra's explanation of the reason for "a holy nation").  The second reason, however, is that since we believe in eternal life, and that the deceased is not totally cut off from existence but instead is approaching the proximity of the Divine Spirit, one should not mourn excessively.


A different approach from the above is brought by the Bechor Shor:


Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor (ad loc): The text opens with, You are the sons: And if your father dies, you shall not gash yourselves nor make any baldness, nor be too sorrowful. You are not orphans, since indeed you have a great Father who lives, blessed be His name.


The Bechor Shor’s approach is radically different from the two preceding views, as he sees the Torah’s designation of the Jewish people as Hashem’s children as a comfort for the loss and reason not to mourn too much, and not as the obligation or rationale that created the obligation.  His view, however, is a minority, as the following Or Ha-Chayim demonstrates:


Or Ha-Chayim Chapter 14, verse 1:   You are the sons of God, etc. One must be exact as to why the statement "You are the sons" is connected to the statement you shall not gash yourselves. It appears that the intention is that at a person's death, there is no loss to the deceased rather indeed he is like a person that sent his son for merchandise to another city. After a time the father sent after his son [to return him]. The son is only absent from the place from which he went. But for all intents, he exists. On the contrary - it is good for him. The son returned to his father who is the source of his life. Therefore we must not gash ourselves nor make any baldness.


The Or Ha-Chayim does not explain why there are two reasons, and it is possible that he sees them as doubling a similar explanation.  What is interesting, however, is how he approaches the question of mourning.  According to the Ramban, there is a place to mourn for the deceased.  However, excessive mourning is inappropriate, because of the soul’s eternal nature, and therefore the Torah places limitations on how much a person may grieve.  According to the Or Ha-Chayim, however, in theory there is no place whatsoever for mourning because his soul is present in a better world than our world.  That we mourn at all is a concession to human weakness.


We conclude with the thoughts of Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, the 19th century German scholar:


Rabbi David Hoffman (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)   The text opens, You are the sons. This is the introduction to the entire chapter. That is to say you are close to God like sons are close to their parents. Therefore, you are obliged to be worthy of the closeness to God, in your outer appearance and in your actions. 


The text opens, You shall not gash yourselves: Our sages taught us in Sifri: "You shall not gash yourselves," the way that others gash themselves, as it is stated (Kings I 18:28) "and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lances".  Idolaters from the Gentile world as well as the priests of Ba'al in Israel did not recognize the truth of the Almighty Merciful who wants to do good with his creation. They believed that their gods were jealous of man's happiness. They believed that in order to achieve something from their gods, a man would have to accept some degree of self-abnegation in exchange for what would be achieved. This was in order to appease the jealousy of their gods. The priests of Ba'al therefore gashed themselves with swords and lances when they saw that their request was not fulfilled. This was in order to entreat their object of veneration that in exchange for their sorrow and suffering he gives them their request. This is not so with Israel: "you are the sons of the Lord", who loves you as a father loves his sons. Therefore you need not torture yourselves in order to achieve your request from God.


In R. Hoffman’s opinion, the phrase "You are sons" is a title for all of the commandments mentioned subsequently, and not the commandment that specifically is adjacent to it.  What makes his commentary unique is not only his reference to the pagan culture that surrounded Israel at the time, but how radically different the Torah’s conception of God was compared to the Canaanite’s understanding of Ba’al.