Over Troubled Water – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5777

houston

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

 

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Feet First – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5776

Feet First

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.

Playing Favorites – Parshat Ki Tetzei 5775

Playing Favorites

If you’re like many Americans, you spent some time this spring living vicariously as citizens of the Commonwealth, anticipating the arrival of a second child to Prince William and Duchess Kate.  Though we can assume baby Princess Charlotte will be her older brother’s equal in the eyes of her parents, in the royal line of succession, she will always be behind him. Prince George has the same parents, the same upbringing, and the same lineage, yet as heirs to the British throne, he will always be ahead of his sister.  Tough break.  And if you’re up on your royal family knowledge, you also know that both Prince George and Princess Charlotte are in line ahead of their uncle, Prince Harry. Tougher break.

In this case there was no “picking” a favorite. Will and Kate have no choice in the matter; they are bound by a set of laws that have been in existence for centuries.  In fact, similar rules even go back to the Torah in parshat Ki Tetzei, which we read this week.  

This portion of Torah contains in it more laws than any other single portion of Torah.  In it we have laws that govern our fields, our interactions with others, how we treat ourselves, returning lost items, signs of purity, merits involved in various acts, and a whole lot more.  But among the first items the text covers are the laws of a first-born.  

The text states:

“If a man has two wives, one that he loves and another that he hates, and the one he hates gives him a child first, he must not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older.  Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the fruit of his vigor, the birthright his due.”

Basically, a child’s rights are to remain intact regardless of whom the mother is or how the child behaves. That child must still be loved and supported.

I often look to the Torah as a guide for how to educate and adapt in today’s world, and this week’s parshah provides us with a deep and meaningful lesson as we begin a new school year. Even though teachers try not to play favorites, that doesn’t mean they won’t have favorites. There will be children we love and children we’d rather not put up with.  There will be students and parents who push our buttons, and those who are nothing but understanding.  But even if we get on one another’s nerves, we must remember to treat each other with the respect due to other human beings.  Each child, each parent, each teacher, each administrator is entitled to the same respect, love, and compassion, no matter what relationship we have with them.  

May we always strive to move away from dividing the world between those we love and those we hate, and instead use categories like those we respect, those we admire, those who challenge us to be better, and those who are a gift simply because of their presence in our lives.

[photo credit: Royal Baby_031 via photopin (license)]