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The Art of Seeing

  • The Art of Seeing

    Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Creating a Promised Land
Davar Acher By: 
Toby Koritsky

This week's portion begins with the words Ki Tetzei, "When you go out." (Deuteronomy 21:10) The root yatzah-consisting of the letters yud, tzadee, aleph-means "to leave." The Israelites have had experience with leaving. They left Egypt and traveled through the wilderness, where they received the Torah. Now that they are getting ready to enter the Promised Land, the question is, how will they take what they learned in the desert and transform it into a reality in their new home?

The instructions in Ki Tetzei help the Israelites prepare for their new life. They are given detailed laws on many topics, with the greatest emphasis placed on moral values: They are challenged to choose the way they will act as individuals every time they "go out." Their choices will determine the kind of community they will create. The guidelines are provided: "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof." (Deuteronomy 22:8). "You must pay [a hired worker] his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it." (Deuteronomy 24:15) "When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field,? it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow." (Deuteronomy 24:19) These are the principles that the Israelites were given to create a holy nation.

Is there a difference between doing what is right at the moment because it feels good and making a conscious, deliberate choice to follow God's laws? The text suggests that our choices must be deliberate. For us as Reform Jews-whether we consider these laws to be mitzvot that are mandated or view them as open to interpretation-the choosing must become conscious, not happenstance. The fact that we find some of the laws uncomfortable to follow and that in fact these laws raise issues of ethics in today's society indicates that an educated, conscious choice is essential. We cannot be passive or complacent regarding this process: Making conscious choices can elevate us to a higher state of holiness.

When each of us consciously performs ethical acts, we become partners with God. Our individual actions have the power to influence others, to build the kind of community that exemplifies God's Presence. Eugene Borowitz calls this effort "reaching toward our spiritual potential." By making this effort, we can "infuse every ordinary human activity with a touch of transcendence." (The Jewish Moral Virtues, Borowitz and Schwartz, JPS, 1999, p. 63)

As educators, parents, and members of the community, we are obligated to discuss with our children the power and impact of making conscious choices based on the Torah's teachings. By doing so, we, too, can prepare to enter the Promised Land.

For Further Discussion

  1. How can you make your daily actions more consciously infused with the Torah's teachings?
  2. What can we do to make our community a "Promised Land"?

 

Toby Koritsky is the director of education at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA.

9/09/2000
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,483–1,508; Revised Edition, pp. 1,320–1,3445;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,165–1,190

When do we read Ki Teitzei

2020, August 29
9 Elul, 5780
2021, August 21
13 Elul, 5781
2022, September 10
14 Elul, 5782
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