In Parasha Re’eh, as Moses continues to prepare the Children of Israel to enter Canaan, a number of important aspects of daily life go from formality and ritual to very basic rules.
During their time in the Wilderness, the Israelites received detailed instructions about the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the construction of its beautiful hangings and vessels and how the tribes were to camp around it. God gave them many rules on the animals, grain and oil that were to be offered as part of the service in the Mishkan and the manner in which the sacrifices were to be made. The people learned of the special tasks of the Kohanim and Levi’im in transporting the Mishkan, erecting and dismantling it, and conducting the holy services there to honor God.
Now, as they are about to enter their Land, the Israelites learn how the holy fits with the everyday.
While in the Wilderness, the only meat that the people consumed came from the offerings at the Mishkan. Now God tells them when they enter the Land, they can eat meat wherever they dwell. (The laws of kashrut, explaining how meat is made kosher, were given to Moses separately.)
On their journey, all worship was done through the services at the Mishkan. As the people enter and settle the Land, they will be permitted to worship by making offerings at individual altars until God settles the Mishkan at a definite place. (The history of this law is very interesting. For 14 years as the Land was settled, private altars were permitted. Then the Mishkan was located in the city of Shiloh, and private altars were forbidden for 369 years. During a period of unrest lasting 57 years, the Mishkan was located at the cities of Nov and Givon, but individual altars were permitted. When King David captured Jerusalem and settled the Mishkan there (and later built the First Temple), private altars were never again permitted, even after the destruction of the First and Second Temples.)
During the 40 years of wandering, the people often experienced prophecy from Moses and certain elders – and even from the non-Jewish prophet Balaam. Prophecy would become less frequent once they enter the Land, and God warns the people about following false prophets. Even if a person had performed a sign or wonder, correctly foretelling the future, if he suggests that the people follow a false god, he is not a prophet and the people should not follow him. On a larger scale, if someone – even a close relative – says that you should follow another god, he must be punished. And if an entire city follows such men to worship false gods, the entire city must be punished.
With instructions such as these, God is preparing the people for life when they are not all together under the leadership of great people like Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, Caleb and others. They must learn how to recognize what is holy and proper on their own – just as we have to do when we are away from parents, teachers and Scout leaders.
The outline of when private altars were permitted comes from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s book, Unlocking the Torah Text: Devarim.