The last few years have certainly highlighted the differences between communal space and personal space, and community needs versus individual needs. We wore masks at the beginning of COVID19 to protect others, with the understanding that it took partnership in mask-wearing to care for one another. As we moved through the pandemic, with the help of vaccines and ever-growing knowledge about the effects of the virus, we had new decisions to make to maintain the balance between meeting our needs and the needs of the community.
We read Parshat Re’eh this week, as the Torah races to the finish line of its lessons. In our parshah we learn about the blessings and curses that will come with the observance (or lack thereof) of the mitzvot we’re given. We receive some final warnings about following the laws against idolatry, laws for keeping kosher, and the importance of treating each other as equals. Finally, we receive additional information on our three pilgrimage festivals.
In the midst of this text, we read about a question of centralized sacrifice. Does sacrifice have to happen at an agreed-upon place, or can it be scattered in various places throughout the area? Most of what we learn about sacrifices is tied to the Temple in the post-Torah time. The standard of practice meant coming together for the three pilgrimage festivals, with the assumption that the other sacrifices for well-being, thanksgiving, and more were done in the small cities where everyone lived. This practice was around even before the Temple was built.
In chapter 12, verse 8 we learn that “we should not act as we do now, every man as they please.” The idea is that sacrifice should not be a spur-of-the-moment activity that could be done anywhere. They should be done in the tent of meeting. Yet this cautionary line implies that before this moment, sacrifice perhaps was happening whenever required and inspired around the Israelite encampments. I don’t think Parshat Re’eh is suggesting a prohibition against having private moments of connection; instead, we’re prohibited from having only those moments.
This is the challenge of community time and space. On the one hand, we are often better served coming together, and Judaism dictates moments of togetherness as we mourn, celebrate, and grow. On the other hand, there are also moments that feel personal and sacred, that we don’t want to share with anyone but God. Judaism is a religion of both communal gathering and connection as well as individual prayer. This balance is part of what makes us the people we are.