A local mohel has a wonderful prop that he brings to every b'rit milah, along with his instruments and medical supplies. After he finishes the procedure, he dresses the infant in a T-shirt imprinted with the words "Now I'm Perfect!"
In three words, this mohel has encapsulated a very important truth implicit in this week's Torah portion. Ki Teitzei has the distinction of outlining more of the traditional 613 mitzvot than any other Torah portion does. According to Maimonides, over seventy mitzvot are derived from this week's Torah portion. These mitzvot have tremendous breadth. Their span includes such disparate topics as the proper treatment of prisoners of war, disobedient children, fallen beasts of burden, brides accused of adultery, prostitutes, foreigners, divorcées, widows, orphans, immigrants, the destitute, debtors, and animals, as well as other issues. Compared to last week's parashah, Shoftim, which presents a series of checks and balances on the people who possess power in biblical society, this week's portion tends to focus on the rights of those with little power. Might these mitzvot be linked to b'rit milah and to one another by the theme of self-perfection?
Nachmanides, perhaps the most psychologically attuned of all the classical commentators on the Torah, suggests in an extended excursus on our portion that the purpose of the mitzvot is primarily not for us to help God, serve God, or be partners with God but rather to refine our souls. Following the words of the Psalmist, Nachmanides employs the image of souls as spiritual silver that is easily tarnished. Mitzvot, like that of b'rit milah, are the crucibles through which we refine our souls. But what does refining something as insubstantial as a soul mean? In the Greek and Christian traditions, it is the concrete world that is the source of contamination: The soul is pure, but the body is corrupt, or at the very least corruptible. From this, one might infer that the path to spiritual purity is monasticism or some other form of isolation from the physical world. Our portion tells us the exact opposite: To be holy, we must be positively engaged in the welfare of all beings in our world.
To my mind, the essence of the refinement induced by the mitzvot in Ki Teitzei, particularly those that focus on the least powerful among us, can be summed up in three Hebrew words found in this week's portion: Lo tuchal l'hitaleim. (Deuteronomy 22:3) While the new JPS translation renders these words as "You must not remain indifferent," I prefer the Hertz (Soncino) translation, which renders the Hebrew more literally: "Thou mayest not hide thyself." Onkelos, the author of one of the earliest translations of Scripture into Aramaic, is even more emphatic: "You have no right to hide yourself."
We all have the impulse to get away from things. That's largely why people go on summer vacations. We are all exhausted at times by the noise in our lives and seek the refreshment of clear air in the mountains or by the shore. But even when we find ourselves in different surroundings, we are not allowed to be indifferent. We were put on this planet to be engaged in the world. Even God does not remain indifferent: God loves and, according to the Ten Commandments, is capable of jealousy and zeal, particularly when we hide from God or turn our focus toward the idols we continue to create. Even worse is the prospect of God's showing indifference to those who are indifferent to the powerless among us.
So why has the Reform Movement returned to the vocabulary of mitzvah? One possible reason is our sense that God is most hidden from those who try to hide from a commitment to our covenant.
Questions for Discussion
- Do you think that there are reasons for all of the mitzvot?
- Should we strive to ascertain those reasons?
Jeffrey Ableser is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Windsor, ON, Canada.