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Putting Elul to Work

  • Putting Elul to Work

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

Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, forty years of wandering in the desert: imagine how the legends of the Land of Israel that must have been told. In the heat of the day, while baking bricks for Pharaoh's cities, perhaps a grandfather told his grandson of the cool breezes and the shady places in the Promised Land. While walking in the wilderness, perhaps one girl was so thirsty she could hardly catch her breath, so her mother comforted her with tales of the sweet fruits and vegetables that grow in the Promised Land. And, when the Amalekites attacked Israel at Rephidim, perhaps Joshua dreamed of the great peace he might one day discover in the Promised Land. Parashat Ki Teitzei describes the moment when the Children of Israel are positioned just outside of Eretz Yisrael, the mythical place of their dreams. They could hardly contain themselves: a new life of cool breezes, luscious fruits, and deep peace was just on the horizon, less than three weeks' distance.

Reality

And what does God instruct Moses to say to those gathered, buzzing with excitement? "When you take the field against your enemies, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife... ," this is how you should treat her (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). "If a parent has a wayward and defiant son... ," this is how he should be punished (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it" (Deuteronomy 22:8). If a young engaged woman is raped in town, this is how the case should be treated (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). If a young engaged woman is raped in the countryside, this is how the case should be treated (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). And on and on goes the list of seventy-two mitzvot.1 Laws concerning how to treat the widow, the orphan, the rejected wife, the hungry, the slave who is fleeing from his master, and the one who suffers a skin disease hardly paint a picture of the land of their dreams! Where are the good times? Where is their paradise? Where is their fulfillment, if not perfection? Moses lays down the ultimate reality check when he says: When you establish yourselves in the land, be sure to set up the washrooms outside of the camp! (Deuteronomy 23:13-14). All these mitzvot come to prepare the Children of Israel for what is just around the corner-not a perfect life, but a life of potential; not the "Promised Land," but a land filled with promise.

We, too, are poised at the edge of something new and full of promise. Just on the horizon, less than three weeks' distance, sits Rosh HaShanah and a new year of possibility. Some may dream: "This is the year that I'm going to get it right. This is the year I turn it all around. I'll be the perfect parent, the ideal spouse, the most loving son or daughter to my aging parent ..." Visions of our highest selves are necessary if we are to advance, but like the dreams B'nei Yisrael had of life on the other side of the Jordan River, our dreams of the year ahead must be tempered with the realities of life on the ground. Like sovereignty in the Land of Israel, we, too, are works in progress.

When the Kotzker Rebbe was asked to define a life of Chasidism, he answered, arbetn oif zikh, that is, "to work on yourself." We work on ourselves throughout the year, but that work is intensified now in preparation for the High Holy Days. In his book, The Jewish Way, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg 2 draws a playful parallel. The month before summer hits, we go on crash diets, dreading how our bodies will look in bathing suits at the water. So it is with Elul, the month before Rosh HaShanah. Elul is when we go on crash spiritual regimens for fear of how our souls will look when standing naked before God.

Like our ancestors stationed east of the river, we imagine with curiosity and anticipation what lies ahead for us now. For at least three reasons, we should pursue the visions we have of our highest selves. First, we have implanted within us the human capacity for change. No matter our previous failures to break from bad habits, no matter our fears of taking risks or of actually succeeding, we can change. Second, we are not alone in our desire for change. We can draw strength from the Jewish People-past and present-which shares a never-ending journey through the wilderness toward promise. And third, God is forgiving. Even if we fall short, even if reality strikes and we miss the mark, God rewards us for having made the effort with all our being. The shofar is sounded each morning throughout the month of Elul. Let us hear its dual call-the call to advance toward our dreams and the call to be roused from our slumber, so that we are sure to advance with eyes wide open.

  1. W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,320, attributed to Maimonides
  2. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, The Jewish Way (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1988)

Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, the chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, and a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.

With This Breath, I Choose To Be Holy
Davar Acher By: 
Tanya Greenblatt

So many rules! Parashat Ki Teitzei instructs us on mitzvot large and small, communal and personal. Preparing for the High Holy Days, we find inspiration in this parashah: here are simple instructions to bring holiness into our lives.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer range and quantity of mitzvot in this parashahand in general. We become obsessed with the details, driven by a desire for perfection, and, falling short, throw up our hands in defeat. This kind of Judaism seems too hard and causes many people to retreat from our beautiful heritage. We see them sometimes, timidly returning for High Holy Day services, feeling ashamed or self-conscious. We all feel this way sometimes: We haven't done enough, learned enough. Do we really belong here?

What if, instead, we recognize in this parashah the myriad opportunities for holiness in our everyday lives? Rather than expect to fulfill all the mitzvot, all at once, setting ourselves up for the failure that might cause, we can study and struggle with Torah continually, and make choices that reflect the integrity of our beliefs. We can examine and reexamine ourselves, not only at this time of year, but at any and every moment.

In our morning liturgy, we praise God with the words of Elohai N'shamah, our daily reminder that the soul and breath are pure gifts from God . Each moment is new and unique, and with each breath we can choose to continue on our current path or make a decision to do things differently. Even in situations that seem far removed from God's Presence, we find the Divine Voice guiding us to make all of our choices Jewish choices, and to make all of our actions Jewish actions. When we feel overwhelmed and buried by expectations, fearing we will never live up to our aspirations, all we need to do is take a breath to remember that we are holy.

Cantor Tanya Greenblatt is the cantor at Temple Beth Am in Jupiter, Florida and currently serves as secretary of the American Conference of Cantors.

8/27/2012
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