As Moshe prepares the Children of Israel to enter into the Land, he exhorts them not just to live up to individual responsibilities, but to live up to their communal ones, first and foremost. They are going to enter a new land, and they must turn it into a country. They must build the institutions, the systems, and the infrastructure to make it a well-functioning society that embodies the values of the Torah.
Step number one is ridding the land of idolatry and its artifacts, and establishing God and God’s Temple as the country’s focal points. There is to be just one Temple, a unified system of worship where all gather to worship. Towards the end of the parasha, we have the shift from the religious institutions to those of morality and justice. The laws of tithes and Shmita reveal that the concern for the poor is not just something to be addressed by individual acts of charity but is at the core of the structure of society.
What we have is a whole society built on the Torah. What we don’t have is a focus on, or even a concern for, the individual and his or her personal religious experience. In fact, spiritual yearning could present a threat. When there was not yet a Temple, people would offer on their individual bamot, private altars. This allowed for a full subjective, personal act of worship. But it could lead to idolatry. They – the idolaters – worship “on the high mountains and the hills and under every leafy tree” (12:3). But you “shall not do this to the Lord your God” (12:4). A single God must be worshipped in a single place. On the one hand this is about numbers – multiple places lead to multiple gods. But it is also about what results from an excessive focus on one’s personal religious experience. When you follow your own path, who knows where it can lead?
Chazal’s phrase for this is boneh bamah li’atzmo, that a person will go off and build a private altar for himself (Berakhot 14a, Chagigah 26a). Now, interestingly, this phrase is not always disapproving in the Talmud. We find that if someone makes a vow and fulfills it – a personal, self-initiated religious act – it is praiseworthy and considered as if he has built an altar and offered a sacrifice on it (Nedarim 22a). This is exactly the tension – the desire to build a bamah is to give expression to one’s own personal yearning. This yearning might lead to idolatry, but it might lead to the fullness of the religious experience.
This concern applies to the moral realm as well. The Torah tells us that during the period prior to the building of the Temple, and, more to the point, prior to the creating of a structured society, it was ish kol ha’yashar be’einav, each person doing what is right in his or her own eyes (12:8). Before the societal institutions were established, it was the Wild West. It is thus that after Moshe lays out the basis for such a society, he urges the people to do “what is good and right, ha’tov vi’ha’yashar, in the eyes of the Lord your God” (12:28). To do what is yasher in God’s eyes, and not what is yasher in each person’s eyes, can only be achieved at the collective level once the societal structures in place.
But just as there can be religious yearning, there can also be moral yearning. It is all well and good that we live in a society of laws. But what about my own sense of morality? Should I just live in the letter of the law and no more? Just as with the religious yearning, this yearning can be very good, but it can also be dangerous. What if your sense of what is right and good is at odds with God’s? And yet, if channelled correctly, this yearning can also lead to a more fully moral life. For it is exactly from the verse of doing what is yashar and good in the eyes of God that the Rabbis derive that we must strive to live lifnim mi’shurat ha’din, not just according to the letter of the law, but it’s spirit. If the yearning can be faithful to what is yashar in God’s eyes, then it will lead us to the most profound morality, not just of following laws, but of also being true to their values.
The tensions between societal structures and individual expression is a recurring theme both in the period of the judges and in the period of the Davidic dynasty. Before a kingship, was established, the institutions that ensure justice and morality were not fully in force. We thus hear time and again that at this time, “there was no king in Israel, ish ha’yashar be’einav ya’aseh, each person did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). It was the time of villains, and also of heroes, it was the time of Gilad, of Samson, and of Devorah. It was a time of rugged individualism. It was a time when particular people could rise to prominence, when John Wayne could ride into town and clean up all the mess. But the society as a whole suffered. Everyone did what was right in his eyes. Sometimes what was right in his eyes was genuinely right, but too often it was what was wrong.
With kingship came a just society; with a centralized society, there was law and order. The greater good was served, albeit with some sacrifice of, and potential accomplishments of, the individual. There were no more John Waynes, but everyone as a whole was better off.
There was now also a centralized Temple, which likewise benefitted society as a whole, doing much to limit the pervasive idolatry. Yet this collective worship meant that people’s personal religious yearnings were not given full expression. Thus, we find throughout the period of the Davidic dynasty, that the enduring problem was that of bamot, “only the altars did not taken away, the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the altars” (Kings II, 12:4, 14:4, 15:4). The mandate of our parasha was achieved – we had a society with central government, with just laws, with a single Temple – and yet, the individual’s yearnings – for moral greatness, for religious heights – were somehow lost in the process.
One lesson we can learn from this is that we tend at times – particularly as Americans – to overemphasize the concerns of the individual and his or her ambitions and yearnings. Parashat Re’eh teaches that the first concern must be the collective, has to be creating a society that asks individuals to make certain sacrifices so that all of society can benefit. But the other message is that once we have those structures in place, we cannot forget the individual. There are times when it is a good thing to build a bamah – if it reinforces rather than undermines our worship of God. There are times when it is right to follow what is right in your eyes – as long as it is also right in God’s eyes.
We have created a wonderful system, the system of halakha. This serves to structure our lives. It is the replacement of the structuring of society that was to take place in the Land of Israel. This is our structure for galut. But we have privatized our religion, and are no longer concerned with the larger structuring of society. If we are to take this parasha seriously, however, we will work to change that, we will work to shape society and its institutions according to the values of the Torah, the values of justice and of righteousness.
And if we listen closely to the inherent tensions in the parasha, we will also not allow halakha to do all of our work for ourselves. We so often think that if we are living a halakhic life, then that is the sum total of our obligation. But what about religious yearnings and a life of the spirit, what about moral yearnings and a life according to the values, not just the laws of the Torah? We must find ways to give legitimate expression to these as well.
To do this, to create a just, God-centered, society, that at the same time gives room for the individual and his or her deepest moral and religious yearnings, is truly what it means to do what is right in the eyes of God.