Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Re'eh 2013

Parashat Re'eh
Rabbi Monique Mayer

2 August 2013

I live in Wales, and I also rent a flat in Bristol to make it easier to work at our synagogue. The flat is small, but nice, and it compensates for its minimal size with a great location. The challenge of staying in a small flat is keeping control of the ever-increasing influx of papers and small, miscellaneous objects. Small piles of stuff seem to accumulate in· my work space, my kitchen space, my lounge space. The knock-on effect of this clutter is that it invades my consciousness. Its very existence prevents me from relaxing, and makes it difficult to focus or study, causing me to retreat to a local cafe, which starts to get rather expensive. Each time I sit down to concentrate, papers at the edge of my small dining table beckon, unread books taunt me, and random objects on the periphery of the room catch my eye--items that really need to be put/given away or simply thrown out. Who could concentrate with so many distractions?
So, a few days ago I determinedly blasted through my flat. All the papers were packed into one container, and I found places for almost all the miscellany. Boxes and old magazines were taken to the recycling bin. The difference in the atmosphere was profound. Suddenly, I could relax. I could breathe. I could think. And I could pray.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deut 12:2-3, JPS translation) The image of the people entering the land, and shattering, burning, and wiping out even the hint of a reminder of foreign gods and idols, is quite dramatic. The ethnic cleansing that precedes this action is seriously problematic to our Liberal Jewish values of compassion, tolerance, and justice. Yet, being Liberal Jews, we are also blessed with the freedom to reinterpret and transcend the original biblical text. At the recent music conference hosted by the Reform movement, I took part in a workshop on·SToratelling with Shira Kline, who opened us up to a beautiful way of connecting with and relating to sacred text. One of the questions she posed is “what is the core message--the “bull’s eye” of the text?” So, when looking at this week’s·parashah, I asked myself the same question--what is the bull’s eye of this text? What can I, a Liberal Jew, take from a very particularistic, ethnocentric (and xenophobic) text?
I see the text as a warning: our ability to pray, our ability to connect with the Divine--whether in ourselves or in others--can be eroded by those things in our environment that--at best--are distractions and--at worst--we’ve made into idols. Old papers and magazines, objects beyond repair, unpaid bills...all these things become idols when they fill and consume our thoughts. They can drain us, sapping our energy at the expense of what really matters. We need space in our heads to focus on what’s important, and our ability (or lack thereof) to create that space is linked to our physical environment. Just as the Israelites were instructed to cleanse the land of anything that might distract them from connecting with God, we, too, may need to clear space in our own environment to truly enable us to sit, reflect, and perhaps even pray.