R'ay 3

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


A Team Without Cuts

Parshas R'ay

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


In this week’s portion we find the verse: “You are children to G-d, you shall not cut yourselves (it was a prevalent custom for people to gash their own skin when a close relative died)” (Deut. 14:1).

What is the connection between being the children of G-d and the prohibition against a Jew making incisions into himself?

When a person suffers a loss, they feel pain and a need to express it physically because of the loss. As Jews, however, we need never feel such pain. This is so for two reasons. The Ohr Hachayim explains this from the vantage point of the deceased. Since the person who has passed away is now reunited with His father, i.e., G-d, the loss is not so acute. The Seforno explains this from the vantage point of the survivors.   The survivors may feel alone due to the loss, as bad as it may seem, but the survivors still have a relationship with their Father — G-d — and should not feel so alone.

The implications of this are enormous. We are told at different times to love and fear G-d. This verse is adding a new dimension to those feelings. This is not merely the love due a benefactor, or the awe and fear due a King, but the closeness between a father and a child. It is so much so that it removes some of the pain during the mourning process.   

The Talmud (Kiddushin 36a) debates (Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda) whether we are unconditional sons to G-d.  Rabbi Meir says that whether we do the will of G-d or not, we are still His children, while Rabbi Judah holds that we are His children only when we are deserving. In Ethics of the Fathers, only the point of view that we are His children, regardless of our actions, is mentioned (in the name of Rabbi Akiva).

The Midrash explains that the prohibition of “do not cut yourself” also refers to the idea that there should not be divisions between Jews, that is, that Jews should not cut themselves off from one another.

If this is so, then why are there class distinctions in Judaism? Why are there differences between men and women, priests, levites, and the different tribes, kings and commoners?

The answer to this also relates to the juxtaposition of this law (“do not cut yourself” referring to not having divisions between Jews) and the concept that we see ourselves as children of G-d.

If we are all unified towards the common goal, i.e., achieving closeness with G-d, it is only natural that there be distinct roles, not equal in responsibility, but equally important before G-d.

Unfortunately, many people today have been influenced by cultural mores and feel that the Torah discriminates. We must look beyond the dictates of society and allow our perceptions to be shaped by the fact that we are children of G-d, and we have His Torah as guide.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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