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

 

Feet First – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5776

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As someone who has been in school or working in schools for much of my adult life, I know firsthand there is something simultaneously magical and infuriating about the first day of school. I’m so excited I usually can’t sleep the night before. I jump up awake at 4:00 a.m., ready to go face the day, the year, and the newness of it all. What a blessing to be so eager, so excited to jump feet first into everything that lies ahead. At the same time, when there’s something I’m dreading doing, I tend to sleep really well, confident that I’ll be able to successfully put off or avoid this dreaded task. And that’s typical of life. When we face something fun, exhilarating, or new, we’re often eager to jump in and get started.

This holds true for our Jewish life too. The Torah teaches us that we are expected to rush to do mitzvot as soon as we’re permitted to do them. This is why a bris most often takes place first thing in the morning, and why as soon as Yom Kippur is over we’re supposed to rush home to put up our sukkah. The thrill and excitement of these events propels us forward to eagerly complete our tasks.

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, parents and children, 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.

Chapter 21, verse 23 teaches, “You must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day.” While this verse is talking about someone who is impaled for committing a crime, the sentiment remains true for all our dead. To avoid desecration of the dead, we bury them as soon after the death as possible. However, to honor the dead, burial can be postponed to enable relatives to attend the funeral, or even to allow their organs to be donated.

In the case of a burial, we rush to perform the mitzvah, but obviously we’re not necessarily glad or excited to do it. Here our religious world and our emotional world collide. The beauty of this verse is that we are commanded not only to rush to perform a mitzvah that might not be a happy one, we are also shown the importance of treating each person in our community, regardless of their social status, with the same dignity and respect.

Ours is a feet-first religion. We rush to bury so that we can begin mourning, and we rush to name so we can begin celebrating. The common theme is that Judaism demands that we dive in.