Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re'eh 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Re'eh 5760/26 August 2000

"The site that the Lord your G-d will choose"

Prof. Shaul Regev

One of the things that the Israelites are commanded to do when they enter the land is to level and wipe out all the cult sites (places of idolatrous worship) they find there (Deut. 12:1-3). In contrast to pagan worship which is practiced anywhere, worship of the Lord is to be centralized in one place, "the site that the Lord your G-d will choose." There the Lord is to be sought and there all offerings and sacrifices are to be brought (12:4-7). This intended site is, of course, Jerusalem.

This close juxtaposition of the command to wipe out pagan worship and the command to worship the Lord calls for further comment, as does the main question which arises on reading these verses: Why is this site for worshipping the Lord not identified explicitly? Deuteronomy is noted for specifying many place names in great detail. For example, in the discussion of the blessing and the curse, which comes up before the subject of doing away with idolatry, not only is the place mentioned, rather the place is described in great detail: "You shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal.--Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah--near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh" (Deut. 11:29-30).

To answer the first question, according to Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed, 3.45), the command to worship the Lord in the Temple is directed against idolatry, and therefore the two subjects come one after the other. In contrast to pagan worship, which is practiced in a certain way, you are to perform your worship, which is an imitation of that other worship, in a different way. Maimonides views this instruction as directed inwards, that we be obedient and precise in our worship of the Lord, and outwards, that the Name of the Lord be proclaimed in the world. As an example of proper worship, Maimonides cites Abraham, who by tradition worshipped on the Temple Mount. Abraham gave an offering to the Lord on Mount Moriah because it was the highest place in the area; thus Abraham indicated the supremacy of worshipping the Lord over worshipping pagan gods, insofar as the pagans also sought elevated places for their religious rites. Maimonides continues:

I have no doubt that the place that Abraham set apart prophetically was known to Moses and to many others whom Abraham commanded to make this a house of worship.

In other words, the site of Mount Moriah, which was also the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is "The site that the Lord your G-d will choose", was known at least in the tradition of the generation of the exodus, in the time of Moses. Perhaps this tradition ceased with the passing of that generation in the wilderness, and now Moses was transmitting the tradition to later generations, except that in his transmission he hid what had been known, for three "prudent" reasons, as Maimonides says:

Firstly, so that the other nations would not seize hold of it and fight fiercely for the site, knowing that this place in the land was the ultimate purpose of the Torah. Secondly, so that those who controlled it at the time [e.g. the Canaanites] would not use all their might to ruin and destroy it. Thirdly, and this is the strongest reason, so that no tribe would request that it be part of their inheritance so they could rule over it, for thus the site might become a bone of contention as happened in the request for priesthood.

The first two arguments are directed at the gentiles, that they not be a hindrance either by holding on to the site or by destroying it; the third is directed at the Israelites, that there not be inter-tribal strife over control of the site. Maimonides concludes by saying that therefore this commandment would only be fulfilled after a king was chosen, since the king would impose order among the tribes and would neutralize any such inter-tribal strife. It is along these lines that Maimonides ruled in Hilkhot Melakhim 1.1:

The Israelites were commanded three things upon entering the land: to appoint themselves a king, ... to wipe out the descendants of Amalek, ... and to build the Temple.

According to this interpretation, the Torah deliberately refrains from stating where the Temple will stand. That place will be revealed when the generation that is to build it is ready, both in terms of relations with the outside world, and in terms of internal politics, appointing a king and destroying Amalek, which here apparently signifies any enemy or foe.

Rabbi Isaac Caro's commentary, Toledot Yitzhak, copies Maimonides' remarks in Guide to the Perplexed almost word for word, except that he formulates Maimonides' first reason a bit more clearly, saying: "If the nations of the world knew that prayer and sacrifice are accepted there, every nation would try to seize the place and there would be much bloodshed between the nations." R. Isaac Caro essentially feared two consequences, both of which would be injurious to the Jewish people. One was physical -- fierce wars between nations for sovereignty over the site, e.g. the Crusades, which would both lead to much killing as well as prevent the Jewish people from having sovereignty over the place. The other was metaphysical -- for when it would become clear to the other nations that this is the chosen site for prayer and sacrificial worship and that prayers there are received by the Lord, then they would pray and offer sacrifices there, with the inevitable result that the Lord would accept their prayers. The Jewish people would lose its uniqueness if all other peoples worshipped the Lord, but not because they had fulfilled their destiny of spreading the faith.

R. Mordechai ha-Cohen (16th century Safed rabbi) offers a different explanation in his commentary, Siftei Cohen:

Moreover, one could say that the place was kept hidden so that it would be held more dear in their eyes and so that they could be rewarded for each and every word.

If from the outset they knew where the place was, yet the place stood desolate until they completed conquering and settling the land, i.e., until each private individual received his property, and only afterwards turned their attention to seeing to a public place of worship, that would show lack of respect. What more, no time limitation had been placed on completing the conquest and settlement of the land. Indeed, that was what actually happened. Everyone was occupied with his own personal and tribal affairs throughout the time of Joshua and the Judges, as well as during the reign of Saul and part of David's reign. Had it not been for David's initiative, even more time might have elapsed before the Temple was built. Keeping the site of the Temple unknown while at the same time commanding that the sacrifices be made at that special place must have made performance of the commandment all the more dear to the people, so thought R. Mordechai ha-Cohen.

R. Isaac Abarbanel (commentary on Deut., p. 120), emphasizes differentiation from idolatry. According to him all the commandments concerning the Temple were given in contrast to the practices of idolatry mentioned earlier, to bring out three primary differences:

1. Worship is to be concentrated in one location, in contrast to the dispersal of pagan places of worship.

2. In contrast to idolaters who themselves choose their places of worship, with worship of the Lord the place is chosen by the one worshipped, by G-d.

3. In contrast to idolatry, where the priests are selected by the people or by the priests themselves, the Cohanim, or priests, are chosen by the Lord.

Abarbanel essentially puts the emphasis on the aspect of obedience regarding the choice of the site, of those who shall minister the sacred service, and of the form of worship. This stands in contrast to idolatry, where in all three of the above respects the initiative is taken by the worshippers. The words, "The site that the Lord will choose," in Abarbanel's opinion serve to stress the identity of He who will choose, and not as Maimonides explains, to keeidentification of the site secret. The prophet is the one who conveys the Lord's word to the people and he will also be the one to transmit identification of the chosen place, where the choosing is two-fold, both as to the location and as to the timing for construction of the Temple.

A different approach from all of the above is taken by R. Moses Albelda (16th c. Greece and Albania; Olat Tamid, 221a), who takes the entire verse allegorically as symbolizing faith and enlightenment and not necessarily the building itself. "The site" [=ha-Makom, the Omnipresent] stands for metaphysical knowledge of G-d. This knowledge must be derived from the divine-- "that the Lord your G-d will choose"--, namely, from revelation or the Torah, and not from human intellect. The views of the Torah are not the same as philosophy, rather, they are quite distinct from it, as he says:

It is Moses' intention here that our views about the Deity not be whatever comes to mind, but only as He commanded us. For our views are separate and distinct from the views of other peoples, and therefore He warned us and said, "You must destroy all the sites ... Do not worship the Lord our G-d in like manner..." The great benefit that derives from setting aside a unique chosen place for our House of Worship is to indicate that it ill-befits a person to believe whatever comes to mind, for He, bless His name, is everywhere and therefore wherever we seek Him there we shall find Him; but quite the contrary, we ought to make our intellect submissive to all that He command us.

Albelda extends his understanding of the text to cover all religious behavior, not only building the Temple. "The site" is taken in the broader sense of our knowledge or philosophical perception, which must be founded on G-d as its source, and not on human philosophy. "The site that the Lord your G-d will choose" symbolizes obedience and subservience to G-d, physically and spiritually.
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