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Re’eh, which means “To Behold” or “See”

Below is a sermon that was given at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, in Tampa on August 7th, 2010 by Caryn Baird.

Humans are born with 5 senses that we use to make sense of the world. Even lacking most of those, Heller Keller understood that water was not her skin. There is an other, over there, and a me, over here. As we get older we make more sense of the world by either embracing something as our own, or labeling it as other and keeping it outside of ourselves. We apply our loyalties along those divides and then raise our children accordingly. My family, my clan, my tribe, my neighbors, my faith, my town, my country.

There is not a single black person that I have ever met who doesn't immediately recognize me as biracial. One look at my hair is all they need. In NYC it came out as: "You Puerto Rican?" In Chicago it was: "Love those waves, sister." Down here it sounds like: "You got some pretty hair on your heeyad." Everywhere I go though, my hair says to black folks: "Behold! I'm different than you."

White folks? My skin color announces my black side but they generally are unable to read anything further from my shade of brownness and my hair does not signify to them. But my complexion serves its purpose. "Behold," my skin says to whites, "I'm different than you."

We find our friends and our future spouses frequently through our affinities. Same hobbies, similar passions, shared alma maters. And we announce them through the visual clues we send and the crowds we seek out to be among. By attending a Dead show, or a having bumper sticker which proclaims political views or even commuting by bicycle you announce your affinity with a particular group of people. "Behold," your Yankees shirt says, while you're attending a Rays game in St Pete, "I love NY."

By 640 BCE, Josiah, the King of Judah, had a problem. The Israelites that had lived for 200 years in the Northern Kingdom had disappeared. Its defeat and subsequent dispersal, at the hands of the Assyrians, exposed a big flaw in their worship system. The 10 lost tribes from the northern kingdom had had no unifying signal that said "Behold, I am an Israelite."

So when the conqueror King Sargon II deported the entire population and scattered them throughout Assyria, they assimilated and disappeared. They couldn't band together around a shared identity. They didn't have a shared set of visual clues. HaShem simply became one God among the many above the fireplace.

Here I'll quote from the book "Jews, God & History," and the chapter entitled: "The Portable God: "Somewhere between the defeat of Israel in 722 BCE. and the defeat of Judah in 586 BCE a spiritual awakening took place. A new concept of Jewishness itself was forged that made it possible for the latter to survive and to germinate a new phase of Jewish life."

Josiah, was crowned King when he was 8 years old. When he was 16, he began to seek out the ways of haShem, the God of King David. He also began raising money to repair the Temple. It was in the 12th year of his reign that his high priest, Hilkiah, brought to him a scroll that was found while they were renovating the Temple. It stated the many laws that God asked the Jews to observe. The rules that kept them separate from the pagans all around them. The rules that said: “Behold! I am Hebrew".

The King was moved upon hearing the scroll and he began to institute religious reforms across his realm that would bring his people in line with the rules that Adonai had laid out for them. King Josiah urged the exclusive worship of Adonai throughout the kingdom. He began purging his country of paganism. He destroyed the pagans’ idols and smashed their altars in various cities around Judah. He executed pagan priests and already dead priests he exhumed and had their bones burned on their own altars. All other forms of worship were banned.

He continued his religious reforms by reinstating the observance of Passover and he also brought the Ark back to Jerusalem, to be placed into the Temple. That helped to centralized worship there and also help to standardize practices. To further instill faith in the people, he gathered all the elders from all the tribes across the land together at the Temple. He had the new-found scroll, which we now know as Deuteronomy, read out loud to all the people gathered there. The King then made a public pronouncement that he was going to walk in the ways of the Lord and to keep those commandments with all of his heart and soul. Afterwards all the people joined with him in this vow.

And I quote once more from DiMont’s book: "Now the Jews, out of an inner discipline, imposed on themselves the willingness to obey the authority of the Book."

Within 30 years of the Josianic reforms, the kingdom of Judah would fall and the inhabitants would be dispersed. The Babylonian authorities deported nearly all Jews and they were settled in towns far and wide. This was exactly what had happened to the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel a mere 5 generations earlier. This time however, each scattered clan had a copy of the unifying Code of Law to take with them. They were now identifiably Jews everywhere they went.

Thanks to those far-reaching reforms of King Josiah, I now have one more way of signifying my membership in a tribe. When I decline pork, or observe Passover, or do mitzvot, I now say with my actions to both blacks and whites, "Behold, I'm different than you. Behold! I am a Jew."

Caryn Baird, a news researcher with the St. Petersburg Times, was adopted and raised in NYC. She has a Jewish biological mother and black biological father, but did not discover her Jewish lineage until she asked the adoption agency for her medical records.