Re’eh (Behold) Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
“You are the children of the Lord your G-d; you shall not gash yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord your G-d, and the Lord has chosen you to be a special nation out of all the nations on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)
As part of a list of laws that Moses teaches the Children of Israel, these two verses not only introduce a prohibition but state a basic principle. The prohibition is against injuring oneself or shaving one’s head as a way to mourn the dead. The rituals mentioned here are just two examples of pagan Canaanite rituals and the prohibition against these rituals is actually part of an over-riding prohibition against adopting the customs of the pagan nations.
The prohibitions themselves both center on self- effacing activities, common in pagan rituals. For in the pagan world, man is not created in G-d’s image and therefore is not a holy being. Human beings should not harm themselves, because human beings are created in His image. Life is holy and a living person has value.
But the Scriptures go on to say that the Jewish people are a holy nation, set apart from other nations in the world. For just as the human being is created in His image and is therefore intrinsically holy, the Jewish nation was chosen by G-d and has therefore been given holiness.
By connecting the prohibitions associated with pagan worship with this statement of the holiness of the nation, G-d makes it very clear that He expects His people to act holy, to separate themselves from the rest of the nations, to keep His commandments. In later rabbinic literature, this idea is referred to as the responsibility of the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations.
We are often witness to the fact that the nations of the world hold the Jewish people and the State of Israel to a higher standard. Frankly, in most cases, those nations are not really interested in placing Israel on a higher pedestal, but creating a basis for criticism against Israel. However, we do expect more from ourselves than others do, and this often gets us into trouble. We agonize over every enemy civilian killed in a war to the point that we compromise the extent that we protect our own civilians. It is a conflict not easily resolved.
It is a conflict we grapple with daily. But at the end of the day, we have the obligation to secure our land, for our people, and protect our citizens as best we can.
As for the ultimate vision for our people and our land, I believe it is best laid out in the verses just a few chapters earlier: “The Lord will drive out all of these nations from before you, and you shall possess nations greater and mightier than yourselves. Every place where the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours, from the wilderness to Lebanon, from the river, the Euphrates, to the uttermost sea shall be your border. No man shall be able to stand against you for the Lord your G-d shall lay the fear of you and dread of you upon all the land that you shall tread upon as He has spoken to you.” (Deuteronomy 11:23-25)
Director, Israel Office