Promise Me This – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5781

As I was preparing for my bat mitzvah, I wondered why the boys were learning how to lay tefillin and a talit, and I wasn’t being taught the same. I like ritual, and I thrive on routine. I also respond well to tactile learning; I need to feel things, hold items in my hand in order to find connection. I decided I wanted and needed to learn how to lay tefillin, so my father agreed to help me learn. He taught me to wrap the soft black leather straps of my great grandfather’s tefillin around my small arms. I placed the well-worn box between my eyes and wrapped myself in my grandfather’s talit. I felt embraced in Judaism and connected to my past and my traditions.

And then my dad reminded me that talit and tefillin are not mitzvot you can take on just for a day. They are commandments which, once you’ve committed yourself, you must do for the rest of your life. In my case, my obligation to wear these garments had to be more than a teenage rebellion against a “boys only” culture. It meant being sure of my words and committing to the cause anytime I was in daily minyan. I had a choice to make. Saying “yes” to tefillin wasn’t like saying I wanted dessert tonight or deciding on a certain new pair of shoes, it was actually pushing me to fulfill a promise for my adult Jewish life. 

This week we read Parshat Ki Teitzei. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships, including parents and children, laws about taking care of the poor, and so much more. Ki Teitzei is actually the Torah portion with the most number of mitzvot (commandments) in it, but the recurring theme is how we should execute and fulfill the mitzvot prescribed to us.

In the midst of these laws, God is establishing a society that will set safeguards on how we treat one another and how we’ll connect with all in our community. In Chapter 23, verse 24 God issues forth a commandment that I feel is one of the most important lessons to being true to yourself and others. “You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.”

The intent of this commandment is between God and the people; however, I believe the sentiment is one that should exist between people as well. What you say you’ll do, you must do. The Torah is asking us to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the commitments we make. This means that we must think deeply about what we’re committing to and whether or not we’re able to fulfill that commitment.

Parshat Ki Teitzei intends to remind us of the power of our words and our promises, and to think critically before we agree to do something so that we’re not letting the community (or ourselves) down. If we are all created in God’s image, then our promises to one another should be treated with the same respect as holy covenants.

Team Building According to Torah – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5780

I have worked in many different offices and organizations in my career as a rabbi and educator. One of the universal truths I’ve learned from working in different organizational environments is that the people determine the mood and attitude of the office more than the work itself. And this general atmosphere effects productivity too because the morale of an office can change the quality of work people do and their satisfaction while doing it.

When I was in my Masters in Education program, we spoke a lot about the culture of the place and how happy teachers resulted in happy students. As an administrator and a rabbi, part of my job is to make sure that staff members feel appreciated and respected. That goes a long way to making sure the work gets done and the team works together.

This is a lesson not lost on the Israelites in the Torah. This week, Parshat Ki Teitzei shares a number of laws to govern society. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships between parents and children, laws about taking care of the poor, and so much more. Ki Teitzei is actually the Torah portion with the most number of mitzvot within it, but the recurring theme is the desire and ways in which we should execute the mitzvot prescribed to us. 

Towards the end of the parshah we receive a list of miscellaneous laws. They talk about a variety of potential situations, like asylum for escaped slaves, lending at interest, and prostitution. One that stuck out to me was the sanctity of military camps. When you think of a nation’s military, you don’t often think of a holy or sanctified space. And yet, the Torah teaches in chapter 23, verse 15: “Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.”

Clearly, a military needs to work as a well-oiled machine with unified vision and purpose. Their mission must be explicitly defined, and most importantly, according to the Torah, there should be an atmosphere of respect. The work environment determines their success. 

Parshat Ki Teitzei suggests that when we go out into the world to join forces with others working for common goals, we must do it with purpose and lead those around us to a place of sacred partnership. Building a team of any kind requires establishing a collaborative purpose, vision, and mission. The Torah reminds us that when we have this, morale is high, productivity evident, and outcomes incredible. 

Finders Keepers – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5779

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As the parent of small children, I spend a ridiculous amount of time labeling their items. Shoes, hats, sunscreen, medications, lunch items, underpants, and socks all have names on them so that they won’t be lost at school. I have a whole new appreciation for my mother and the work that went into labeling my clothes when I went to summer camp. Of course for the most part, it’s not the end of the world if one of these items is lost. A majority of our material items are easy to replace. However, there are sentimental items that aren’t so easily replaced, and if something more valuable to us is lost, we hope and pray that someone, somehow might be able to return it to us.

The laws related to our concept of “finders keepers” are clear in our Torah portion this week, Ki Teitzei. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships, including parents and children, laws about taking care of the poor, and so much more. Ki Teitzei is actually the Torah portion with the most number of mitzvot (commandments) in it, but the recurring theme is how we should execute and fulfill the mitzvot prescribed to us.

Chapter 22, verse 1 reads, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.” The text continues listing every step you must take as the finder of an object to return it to the owner. The Talmud continues this line of thinking, reminding us to look for an identifying mark on every lost item we encounter and then do our best to return it to the owner.

This was the first piece of Talmud I learned in rabbinical school. It is called “Eilu Metziot.” These are the found things. We began by learning the intricacies of what items might be lost and what a sign must be. Then the Talmud takes a turn into the emotional nature of losing an object. There are actual discussions of how long it might take someone to give up on their search to find a lost item. These laws also remind the finder to do their best to find the item’s owner to return it.

Think about what a process finding and returning must have been back then. This was well before the time of social media and the ability to put out a post to hundreds (potentially millions) of people to find a lost dog, retrieve a stuffed animal from an airport, or return a wedding ring found on the beach. While most possessions are just “stuff,” some things are sentimental, and their loss can be profound. The Torah this week reminds us, among the intricacies of war and family life, that the responsibility to care for others extends well beyond tending to people’s physical needs. It also includes considering their emotional needs, regardless of the value that might be attached.

Till Death Do Us Part – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5778

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As I’ve written about before, I love the way that Judaism tackles death. From the laws of mourning, to the laws of memorializing, there are so many beautiful ways in which we are bound by law and practice to celebrate and honor the memory of our loved ones. But those rituals are largely focused on what we do as mourners for people we cared for. What about people who we didn’t love, or who led less than upstanding lives?

While it’s somewhat easier to acknowledge that we are all created in the image of God, and thus we start out as equals at birth, it’s much more complicated to apply that same equality all the way through until death. However, the Torah has an answer for this too. Parshat Ki Teitzei, which we read this week, gives us a sense of how we should treat one another as human beings in a variety of situations. This portion of Torah contains in it more laws than any other single portion of Torah. In it we have laws that govern the fields, interactions with others, how we treat ourselves, returning lost items, signs of purity, merits involved in various acts, and a whole lot more.  

Part of the text is based on the notion that we are all equal from birth through death, in war and in peace. Every human being has a value and a purpose. Even those who may not live their lives in the most honest and upstanding way are required, according to this week’s Torah portion, to have a quick and proper burial. Chapter 21, verse 23 states that even “A man who is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God.”  

It’s gruesome, but even a murderer is due a proper burial and is to be treated with the same regard in death as any other body. (Not “anybody,” but literally “any body.”) That’s not to say there isn’t punishment in the living world for crimes committed, but in death we are to think always of the life lost, and the gift of life comes from God.  

Our parshah is a subtle reminder that the universal equality that awaits us should be paralleled by a universal equality we afford others while we’re alive. Human life is valuable, and our bodies, divinely designed, are deserving of care and respect in their final moments on the earth. Even more so are they deserving of those things in life.

 

Over Troubled Water – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5777

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I’m sure you’ve shared my shock and horror watching the images of the devastation Hurricane Harvey has wrought on Houston, Texas and surrounding areas in the Gulf. News broadcasts and photos on the Internet bring both a sense of intimacy, as if it were happening in our own backyard, and distance, as we struggle with not knowing exactly how or when to offer help from so far away.

There’s a visceral, emotional component to natural disasters, not only for those suffering firsthand in the path of the destruction, but also for those witnessing the event from the outside. It comes from a natural desire to want to help and lend a hand, and it manifests itself in many different scenarios. Do you fight for the underdog? Do you like to support small businesses partly because they’re small? And is your heart moved to support those who might be having a difficult time?

This week we read Parshat Ki Teitzei, which discusses a variety of seemingly unconnected laws, including laws for going to war, picking favorite children, and charging interest on loans, among many more mitzvot. In fact this parshah has more mitzvot within its text than any other single parshah. On the surface these laws all deal with the “proper” ways to build and govern a society, but there is another theme that runs through many of these mitzvot, which is how we treat the vulnerable and less fortunate in our society.

Chapter 24 of the book of Deuteronomy focuses on the innate dignity of people on society’s margins. Specifically, this includes people from the widowed and the orphaned to the worker and the poor or downtrodden. Throughout this text, the Torah demands that we work to support them. For example, verses 14 and 15 of this chapter focus on the needs of the worker. We are required to pay wages right away, not withhold them or otherwise take advantage of an employee. The Torah declares that the penalty against an employer who abuses a laborer is guilt brought on by God. That is to say, in a dispute between the powerful employer and the more vulnerable hired worker, God is on the side of the vulnerable.

Human dignity is at the core of how we should treat one another, and to offend or oppress another human being is to offend and oppress God. As we learn from several of the verses in this week’s portion, this goes beyond acts of malice against other people to also mean suffering from outside causes, hurricanes included. Every human being has an inherent value, equal in worth in the eyes of our creator and in our own. Our job, according to Parshat Ki Teitzei, is to actively respect, honor, and support one another no matter the circumstances that created the need. When we can uphold this mitzvah, when we strive to see the worth and dignity in one another, there is no suffering alone.

Right now we have the opportunity to help the more vulnerable among us, namely a smaller conservative synagogue in Houston that faces months of work to repair the damage that has been caused by Hurricane Harvey. I hope you’ll join me in supporting our fellow community Congregation Or Ami; you can read more about what we’re doing and how to help here:

http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Neveh-Shalom-Supports-Houston.html?soid=1102633925361&aid=msUnyK3HMVA