“Take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day.”
Parashat R’eih presents reward and punishment as a straightforward proposition: follow the Torah, and you get the blessings. Don’t follow the Torah, and you get the 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 this list is the command to completely destroy the altars and worship places of the other nations, and to recognize only the spot that God will choose as a sacred space. It is easy to understand this passage as a step in purifying the land of idolatry (a big theme in Deuteronomy). It is a little harder to recognize its impact on Jewish living.
By declaring a single, national location for God’s presence to be known, the Torah centralizes Jewish ritual practice. Once Jews enter Canaan, they no longer will be able to offer sacrifices (the primary form of worship) just anywhere. Rather, they will have to make a pilgrimage (first to Gilgal, then to Shiloh, and ultimately, to Jerusalem) to do so. The social implication is that Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the three pilgrimage holidays, become opportunities for Jews from different communities to meet, share, compare experiences, and become friends. It is arguable that the social aspect of the pilgrimage is more significant than the ritual aspect in building a sense of connection and peoplehood.
While not equating the JCC with the ancient Temple, it is fair to say it plays a similar role in Jewish life today. While people may initially come to the JCC for a service it offers, its ultimate value is how it creates community by connecting members one to another. That’s how community becomes our middle name.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,