“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:
open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Parashat R’eih presents reward and punishment as a straightforward proposition: follow the Torah and receive blessings, don’t follow the Torah and receive curses. Moses then continues to describe the laws concerning sacrifice, prophecy, keeping kosher, sabbatical year and remission of debts, and the pilgrimage holidays.
Included in all these commandments is the prohibition against cutting and self-mutilation as an act of mourning (Deut. 14:1). Since one rabbinic principle of Biblical interpretation is an individual can symbolize the nation, it follows, therefore, a reference to an individual body can be read as a reference to the national body. Now the admonition, “… Lo titgod’du, Do not cut yourselves…” isn’t about bodily harm. It’s a command to the Israelite people to not create agudot, or factions, among themselves through different customs and behaviors (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 13b). It’s a warning to not cut yourself off from your kin and to maintain the unity and stability of the Jewish community. Modern Hebrew uses the word g’dud for a military unit. Now lo titgod’du means don’t divide into opposing, or warring factions.
Covid-19 presents us with a contradiction: it separates us physically, even as we know we can only overcome it together. We each must adopt behaviors individually to conform to the goals of the group, collectively. More to the point, R’eih reminds us the secret to communal survival is to acknowledge whatever practices divide us are superficial and insignificant when compared to the needs and purposes that bind us together.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom