The Body Politic – Parshat Re’eh

by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator

What do parents want most for their children?

A rather startling answer can be inferred from a verse in this week’s parsha. For chapter fourteen of Deuteronomy opens with one of the most intimate metaphors for our relationship with God – that of parent and child – and then goes on to make a very particular request:

You are all children to the Lord your God – so do not make gashes in your flesh… (Deut. 14:1)

“Gashes in your flesh.” Goodness, that’s rather extreme! Surely no parent would ever want their child to self-mutilate, but is that really the first concern that comes to mind when one reflects on the well-being of one’s offspring? In fact, we might wonder if such a command were necessary at all! Is skin-carving so common that it warrants special mention?

Yet the commentary of the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France) refers us an incident later in the Bible when we see this very practice carried out en masse. It is during the stand-off between Elijah and the prophets of the Ba’al, when Elijah challenges them to summon their god (in what is one of the rare moments of sarcasm in Tanach):

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