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Thou Mayest Not Hide Thyself

  • Thou Mayest Not Hide Thyself

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

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

  1. Do you think that there are reasons for all of the mitzvot?
  2. Should we strive to ascertain those reasons?

 

Jeffrey Ableser is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Windsor, ON, Canada.

In the Interest of Fixing the World
Davar Acher By: 
Cheryl M. Rosenstein

"You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countryman, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest. You may deduct interest from loans to foreigners; but do not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen-so that Adonai your God may bless your undertakings in the land that you are about to invade and occupy." (Deuteronomy 23:20-21)

This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, prescribes a great act of tzedakah. The idea that we ought to assist our brethren in reduced circumstances with timely, interest-free loans so that they may maintain themselves through their own work, without resorting to the acceptance of alms, is surely a utopian ideal. Economies don't generally operate without the taking of interest. But the laws of the Torah were designed to protect the hungry from starvation and the disenfranchised from being reduced to utter want. Our tradition's singular commitment to justice tempered with mercy, in imitatio Dei, was intended to make the Jewish community a model for the world, an or lagoyim ("light unto the nations").

Judaism demands that we move against the weakness of our natures and strive to lift ourselves above our lesser impulses. As Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer write in their book Jews, The Essence and Character of a People (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), our insistence on this point has not always made us popular with our neighbors. Indeed, the authors provocatively suggest that our presumption of justice has done the opposite: It has brought about much of the suffering and injustice that our people have known at the hands of our neighbors throughout history.

In the early days of Christendom, some Christians interpreted these verses concerning lending with interest to mean that no faithful Christian ought to engage in that endeavor. Because no normal economy can operate without this practice and since Jews were barred from holding land and participating in other professions, Jews became society's moneylenders. Yet we were damned if we did, and we were damned if we did not. Thus began the association between Jews and banking, which fed the roots of much anti-Semitic discourse. One might say that the term "Jew down" has its origins in this unfortunate period in history.

If Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer are correct, does it mean that if we stop being "too Jewish"-if we ceased being society's gadfly favoring a new and better world-anti-Semitism would disappear? Should we persist in working to improve the world, or should we give up in the hope that anti-Semitism would then just cease to be?

I have found that there is far more ignorance in the world than outright anti-Semitism. When I teach someone who casually uses the term "Jew down" about the origins of the expression and tell that person why it offends, he or she is almost always repentant and grateful to be educated about his or her mistake.

So don't be afraid to share some Torah with the rest of the world. You may be surprised at what you can accomplish by spreading the wisdom of our tradition and the nobility of our Jewish history.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Which other laws in the Torah point us toward utopia?
  2. Which of them seem practical? Why?

For Further Reading

 

As the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Bakersfield, CA, Cheryl M. Rosenstein works to dispel both ignorance and anti-Semitism.

9/01/2001
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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