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Parashat Re’eh

August 16, 2012

Expanding Spiritual Consciousness
By Rabbi Bob Freedman

In Parashat Va’ethanan we are told that even when we are exiles scattered among peoples who worship gods of wood and stone, “If you search there for YHVH your God you will find God, if you seek with all your heart and all your soul” (4:29). One can seek God in any place, it seems, even the most unlikely.

However, Deuteronomy also demands the strict centralization of worship into one place. The ruling appears for the first time in our parashah but is repeated throughout the book. Verse 12:2 stipulates the obliteration of worship places scattered throughout the country. Referring to worship described in 12:2-3 that happened “on high mountains, hills, or under luxuriant trees,” 12:4 rules “Do not worship YHVH your God in this way.” Rather, we are directed (12:5, 11 and subsequently) to make our offerings only at the place where God chooses l’shaken et sh’mo sham, “to establish His name there”- Jerusalem, as it turned out. God’s name is a way of access for the worshiper, so to establish the one God’s “name” in one place served to restrict access to the divine to that place.

Subsequent history forced us to abandon that idea. In the first decade of the 6th century BCE the Babylonians began the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Judean exiles taken to Babylonia were forced to access God without the central Temple. (See Jeremiah 29:7 and 12-14.) In 70 CE the Romans emulated the Babylonians, razing the Temple to the ground. Again Jews found ways of accessing holiness from wherever they happened to be. Much of the deliberation by the rabbis recorded in Mishnah, Talmud, and subsequent law codes is about how to do this.


Why does the Book of Deuteronomy offer these conflicting ideas: that worship should be centralized, and that God can be found everywhere? Perhaps what we are seeing is the evolution of spiritual consciousness in process. If we limit our access to God to a tree in the sacred grove, the God we invoke is very local. If we restrict worship to a Temple in our country’s capital city, our God is only a national deity. But as the limits of our sight and understanding expand beyond our neighborhood, beyond our country, beyond the earth’s boundaries and even into the far reaches of the universe, we perceive that limiting God’s presence to any locality is only a figment of our limited understanding.

Torah expresses this with great elegance, “Today you will know and think over in your heart that YHVH alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is nothing else” (Deut. 4:39). If God fills and surrounds all, then so long as we seek with all our heart and soul, every place can become a gate to heaven.


Bob Freedman is ordained as a rabbi (AJR 2000) and as a cantor (HUC-JIR 1985), and has served congregations as both. He is presently the cantor at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.