In Parshah Re’eh, the Israelites are given an intimation of the shape of their future society across the Jordan River.
The portrait of the Israelites’ world-to-come generally radiates an exuberant sense of well-being — reflecting a society contentedly organized and functioning smoothly.
In this halcyon world, the bounty of the land will be mirrored in a generous social order: Debts will be remitted and slaves freed every seventh year. The “stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” will celebrate the festivals with each household. And, if God’s commands are hearkened: “There shall be no needy among you.”
There are, however, fissures in this serene portrait. Until the people have “come to the resting place, to the allotted haven,” this bountiful existence will not be fully realized. The world of festive in-gatherings and pilgrimages will not be established until God “grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security.” Realizing the promise of the well-ordered, abundant society that our parshah describes depends not only on arrival in the land, but also on reaching a state of peace therein.
The Israelites are commanded to eliminate sources of conflict — both external and internal — in settling their new world. They are to destroy all vestiges of Canaanite idol worship. Israelite cities that have strayed into idolatrous practice must be razed, and false prophets are to be cut down. Until they have emerged from this period of destruction, the portion seems to imply, the Israelites will not realize the golden promise of their thriving society.
This approach to achieving peace and stability — the total eradication of conflict through violence — is, of course, understood today to be facile, cruel and ultimately unwise. Conflict cannot simply be excised tumor-like from society. Indeed, we have come to understand that conflict’s debilitating effects linger long after formal hostilities have ended.
In his book, The Bottom Billion, economist Paul Collier identifies violent conflict among the several “development traps” that keep those in the world’s poorest countries from thriving. Focusing on internal conflicts — civil wars and coups — Collier details how such instability stalks and then dismantles progress in the world’s poorest regions, affecting “development in reverse.” Collier reports that 73 percent of people in the world’s poorest countries are currently in, or have recently been through, a civil war, and that the experience of these persistent conflicts plays a significant role in “trapping” countries in poverty. But Collier does offer some hope.
The strongest predictors for conflict, Collier argues, are not a country’s political, historical or ethnic configurations, but their economies. More than any other factors, low income and slow growth make it likely that a country will become mired in war. That is, while conflict impedes growth and reduces income, the relationship simultaneously holds the other way, too: Poverty breeds conflict.
To build societies in our parshah’s image, it may thus be wisest to heed its own admonishment: “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” When we do so, we invite the possibility that from our open hands will not only fall seeds of prosperity — but also of peace.
Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School. Parshah courtesy of myjewishlearning.com.