As the mother of a toddler, I spend a fair amount of time immersed in a world that I myself have not visited for decades. In so doing, I am learning to see in a new way. I know this may sound sacrilegious, but I find that parenting is not so different from studying Torah! They are both such challenging tasks that at times I want to pull my hair out. They can both leave me feeling completely ignorant, and they are both sacred acts that bring me closer to God. Toddlers, as we all know, are unique beings with their own rules of right and wrong, ownership, fairness, and community. Personally, I often wish that Rashi had written a commentary to help me cope as a parent. What is clear is that the more deeply I probe the mysteries of toddlerhood, the more I grasp the sacredness of life and the way in which God would like us to relate to one another.
Take the game of hide-and-seek. When I play this game with my daughter, she runs across the room, turns her back to me, and covers her eyes. There she is, standing completely in the open, but as long as she can't see me, she thinks that I can't see her! In this week's parashah, Ki Tetze, we learn about another kind of hide-and-seek. Everett Fox's translation of Deuteronomy 22:1,4 highlights the experience of "self-hiding." He writes: "You are not to see the ox of your brother or his sheep wandering away and hide yourself from them; you are to return, yes, return them to your brother?. You are not to see the donkey of your brother, or his ox, fallen by the wayside, and hide yourself from them; you are to raise, yes, raise it up (together) with him." Other translations of this text, like that found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (p. 1,485) edited by W. Gunther Plaut, offer a subtly different perspective. For example, verse 1 of that translation reads: "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow." This translation conveys a passive kind of irresponsibility. In contrast, Fox's more literal translation underscores the fact that such neglect is far more than benign: Fox's translation describes a conscious act of hiding oneself away from what one would like to disconnect oneself from and shutting it out. This reaction is very much like that of the toddler who stands in the middle of the room and covers her eyes. As long as she can't see, everything else ceases to exist.
Historically, Ki Tetze describes the time that our ancestors are preparing to enter the Promised Land. God sets before them a detailed prescription of how they are to act in their new homeland. According to Maimonides, this Torah portion contains seventy-two mitzvot, most of which are concerned with the moral values that God would like to see instituted in the Promised Land. These laws are meant to help people consciously focus their actions in such a way that their society will become a place in which people care about one another. They are meant to promote a style of living whereby people are not cut off from one another. They are meant to inspire connection and engagement. In Parashat Ki Tetze we learn that we are supposed to behave in this way not only toward our own kin but also toward the stranger and the orphan, toward the widow and, yes, even toward our enemies.
Unfortunately, there is a toddler still lurking in each of us. In today's society, it is very easy for us to build a life that blinds us to the problems of others. Those who are fortunate can surround themselves with safe neighborhoods, good schools, and a clean environment. But all too often we become so self-absorbed that we forget the needs of those who exist beyond our own immediate boundaries. It was not any different for our ancestors. Thus God needed to repeat on two occasion the command to help others: "You are to return, yes, return them to your brother?. You are to raise, yes, raise it up (together) with him." (Deuteronomy 22:1,4) Obviously God understood that we need a little prodding in order to extend ourselves. Our tradition states that every Jew must see himself leaving Egypt and must see herself standing at Sinai. I would say that each and every Jew must also see himself or herself entering the Promised Land. In every moment we have a choice: either to act in such a way that we close our eyes to God's Presence or to act in such a way that we bring sacredness into our world.
For Further Reading
Striving toward Virtue: A Contemporary Guide for Jewish Ethical Behavior, Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath, KTAV Publishing, 1996.
Shoshana Perry is the rabbi of Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford, MA.