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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17

What does it mean to establish God’s name?


On a recent trip to Europe one thing that stood out was the amount of graffiti everywhere. And
I do mean everywhere. Needless to say, I expect to find graffiti in major cities. (I lived in New
York City for seven years at a time when, if you stood still, you would be covered with
graffiti.) What particularly surprised me were the sights as I took a train ride through
picturesque Alpine villages. These are small farming communities where the cows are up and
in the field before the rooster has crowed. Every single village had graffiti. Sadly, that is to be
expected along the railroad route, but these were items spray painted on barns and tool sheds
in private residences at quite a distance away from the tracks. What a lovely sight: Flower
covered alpine meadows, snow covered mountains, deep blue skies, emerald lakes, cows lazily
chewing on grass, and Heidi running around with a spray can.

Last time I was in Europe in the early 1990s, there was also graffiti. For the most part it was
political in nature. At that time, some of it was beginning to change and the MTV logo was
visible here and there. This time, I felt as though I was back in New York in the 1980s. The
graffiti consisted of elaborate tags (the writer's personal signature), be it in Belgium, in
Germany, in the Swiss Alps, or in Italy. I don't know if these were written by people "just
passing through" or by local folks, but it looked the same everywhere.

Some people will say that graffiti has a long and sacred history. In the National Park in Capo
di Ponte, Italy (a UNESCO http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/94) I saw Roman graffiti scratched
onto stone over even more ancient writings. Perhaps it’s an inescapable part of human nature;
we want to leave a lasting mark to let people know "I was here;" and the best way to do this is
by writing our names for all to see.

But we all know that's wrong, and—as ours moms used to tell us—just because everyone else
is doing it doesn't mean you have to. This is the message we find in parashat Re'eh. Actually,
the words of Re'eh are much more emphatic: The parasha doesn't say shouldn't, it says don't.
Deuteronomy 12 is concerned with doing away with pagan practices. It instructs us in no
uncertain terms to destroy everything related to paganism in the land. Do not worship the Lord
your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst

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all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. (Deuteronomy 12:4-5) Beyond
the prohibition of pagan worship there is a radical change in how we are to worship God: …
you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose
to establish His name… (Deuteronomy 12:11)

Biblical scholars maintain that this chapter is actually a reflection of reforms that took place
under King Josiah in the 7th century BCE. No matter when it took place, this centralization of
religious practice had major repercussions:

The limitation of sacrificial worship to a single place is the most unique and far-reaching law
in Deuteronomy. It affected the religious life of individuals, the sacrificial system, the way
festivals were celebrated, the economic status of the Levites, and even the judicial system.
Jeffrey Tigay (ed.), JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, pp 118-19

Most frustrating is that no reason is given for the choice of one site. Not surprisingly, this has
led to much speculation among commentators such as Isaac Abravanel, who saw the choice of
a single location as emphasizing the differences between worshipping God and pagan worship.
According to Abravanel, pagan worship is all about what people choose: who or what is
worshipped, who acts as priest, where to worship. In contrast, Deuteronomy teaches that the
single place of worship, the choice of location, and the selection of priests is all determined by
God. Not surprisingly, commentators see this single place as the Temple.

The more difficult part of the verse is where the Lord your God will choose to establish His
name. What does it mean to establish God's name? Modern biblical scholarship relates the
Hebrew phrase lasum et shmo sham to an Akkadian equivalent. The Akkadian term refers to
actually inscribing a royal name on a building or monument after construction is completed.

How futile! We mistakenly think of things set in stone as being permanent while knowing that
time slowly erases all the names of those kings as surely as city workers scrub away at graffiti.
Buildings themselves are subject to demolition; something that should be noted by those who
glory in naming edifices such as Coors Field, TD Banknorth Garden or Trump Tower. Having
recently observed Tisha B'Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples, we are well
aware that even stones of sacred sites can come tumbling down. What then becomes of where
the Lord your God will choose to establish His name?

An experience recounted by Abba Kovner, Hebrew poet and hero of the Vilna ghetto, sheds
light on this matter:

During my first week in the land of Israel, I stood beside the Western Wall. I stood a few paces
away from the wall, from the stones. I felt like I did not belong, like I was part of another
reality. Then someone tugged at my sleeve and asked me to be the tenth person, to complete
their Minyan. I covered my head and joined the Minyan. I joined in the afternoon Mincha
prayer. I had arrived.

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This is so Jewish, the most uniquely Jewish thing—to be one of a Minyan. To know that nine
need the tenth and one needs nine others. This may be the most meaningful thing in Judaism.
My prayer is that I should always be one of the group. May my finest words be incorporated
into the words recited by the community. Life has no meaning if they are for the individual
alone. The individual has meaning only if the individual is connected to the community.*

While roaming in the wilderness, we were instructed to build a Tabernacle so God may dwell
in our midst (Exodus 25:8). This is qualitatively different from having a place where God will
choose to establish His name. Post Temple we have discovered that God has rejected the
permanence of stone and chosen an organic and dynamic structure. As Abba Kovner found
out, for us essential sacred space is community. As elaborated elsewhere in the Torah In every
place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. (Exodus
20:21).

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Michal Shekel

* I am grateful to Tony Wallis of Temple Emanu-El, Toronto for bringing this quote to my
attention.

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