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Ethical Existence Is in the Details

Through a web of seemingly disjointed scenarios, the Book of Deuteronomy is filled with large and small methodologies for preserving the possibility of ethical behavior even in the worst contexts.... Reading the Torah portion Ki Teitzei demands facing a battery of situations in which the average human being might not behave ethically, even in the smallest detail of life, and yet prescribes a way to be ethical nonetheless

D'var Torah By: 
Good Self-Care Makes for Good Fences
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Ariel Naveh

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, Moses continues his final speech to the Israelites, laying out an ethical code for our relationships with each other, with the world around us, and with God. Essentially, Moses mandates us to be good to each other, and good to God’s Creation. 

Grappling with Death and the Need to Mourn

“The whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last” (Numbers 20:29). ... Parashat Chukat is in the middle of the Book of Numbers, and its narrative spans 38 of the 40 years in the wilderness. It is also full of death, and the human struggle to comprehend it.

D'var Torah By: 
Evolving Traditions Around Death and Mourning
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Our emotional responses to death and loss, discussed so beautifully by Rabbi Grushcow in her d’var Torah on Parashat Chukat, are as varied as we are, and therefore evolve as sensibilities change. But not all changes truly meet our inner needs.

Finding the Richness and the Glory in God’s Ways

Freedom is an ideal for humanity that we constantly strive to reach.To be truly free is to possess the human power to choose to live by the rules that bind us. The rules that bind us should, at best, hold us fast to principles and ethics that lead us to our greatest human potential. In B’har, we find the famous verse, “You shall proclaim release (liberty) throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). For Jews, the rules that bind us are Torah.

D'var Torah By: 
Freedom Within and Freedom From
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi David A. Lipper

Yasher koach to my colleague, Rabbi David Lyon, on his insightful comments on this week’s parashah, B’har/B’chukotai. I believe he begins to explore the distinction between the ideas of “freedom within” and “freedom from.” It is here where I believe that Judaism embraces the latter ethic as a driving force in making sacred and informed decisions. The great sage Maimonides taught that all is foreseen, yet freewill is given (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvah, chapter 5). Leviticus and especially the last few chapters, lays out for us the opportunities and challenges we have to choose to live a sacred life.

Learning from the Imperfection of Religion

Parashat Mishpatim offers a myriad of rules to guide us in how to treat other individuals and nations. It makes us wonder: Why is it easier to think and behave humanely when we consider individuals rather than nations? 

D'var Torah By: 
The All-Encompassing Nature of Responsibility
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Megan Brudney

Some of our instincts will easily align with our sacred texts; some will (and indeed should) be in stark contrast with our canon. Yet beyond the wrestling, it is important to note that there is also a reckoning — a moment of accountability for the action we ultimately choose to take. A good example is offered in Parashat Mishpatim, in Exodus 21. Here, we find a section concerning damages incurred by both people and animals: what might happen, who is held responsible, and what restitution is owed.

When a Debtor Does Not Repay

Ki Teitzei has a treasury of Jewish legal and ethical literature, including a discussion of lenders and debtors. When a debt is not repaid, the lender is forbidden from entering the debtor's home without permission to retrieve the security. The rule poses challenges both for lenders and debtors.

D'var Torah By: 
Compassion and Communication
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger

Ki Teitzei urges us to consider the legal and ethical responsibilities of both lenders and debtors. Debtors need to take responsibility for their commitments and not borrow beyond their means. Lenders need to show compassion and refrain from shaming debtors. 

Living in the Golden Mean

Parashat Chukat opens with the law of the parah adumah — the red heifer. It is a classic example of a commandment for which the Torah offers no explanation. How are we to understand and grapple with laws such as this that we do not understand? Perhaps we need to start not with the question, why, but with the question, why not.

D'var Torah By: 
Empathy for the Refugee at Border Crossings
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Ann Landowne

In Parashat Chukat we are reminded of the difficulties that our ancestors encountered during their passage through the wilderness. We learn that Miriam has died (Numbers 20:1) and Moses has little time to mourn. Immediately he must deal with the thirsty Israelites clamoring for water and complaining about their fate. In our tradition, the Exodus from Egypt has solidified our strong identification with the stranger and their need for protection. Here in Chukat, this story of wandering in the wilderness also increases our empathy for the refugee, separated from family, desperate and in need of assistance. It is hard for us to imagine what they have experienced on their journey but our Torah teaches us to let them in.

Liberty and Freedom From Religion in America

This week's double portion, B''har/ B'chukotai includes this famous phrase that appears on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: "Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof" (Leviticus 25:10). The bell holds specialy significance for Americans, especially American Jews.

D'var Torah By: 
Steadying the Hand of Our Neighbor
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Craig Axler

The phrase on the Liberty Bell is just one of the many maxims woven throughout B'har/B'chukotai that promote the establishment of a just society.Another, is Leviticus 25:35: "If your kin, being in straits, come under your authority, and are held by you as though resident aliens, let them live by your side." 

The Moral Imperative of the Stranger

Man helps a stranger up the hill demonstrating tikkun olam

In Parashat Mishpatimwe find the Israelites in the midst of the Revelation at Sinai, experiencing the communal wonder and intensity of their encounter with God. Mishpatim, which means “laws,” dives into the details. The Revelations in Mishpatim are among the words Moses writes down on stone when he and Aaron ascend the mountain. Scholars call these laws the Book of the Covenant or Sefer HaB’rit. It’s the Torah’s first pass at the legal details that govern Jewish living.

D'var Torah By: 
Laws that Lead Us to Act with Compassion
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Matt Zerwekh

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Translated into English, the meaning of Parashat Mishpatim is “Laws,” but I would suggest we also refer to this Torah portion with the word rachmanut, “compassion.” The laws set forth in Parashat Mishpatim give us clear guidance as to our treatment of the segments of society to which we do not belong — the slave, the poor, the widow, the orphan. It point isn’t only that we should remember that we were once strangers in a strange land, for that only calls for empathy — an understanding of the other.

The External War and the Internal War

This week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, "When you go out." It is a reference to violence and war. "When you take the field [literally, "When you go out"] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive ... " (Deuteronomy 21:10).

This sentence is but a tiny portion of more than a thousand verses in the Tanach that deal with war. Our Holy Scriptures came into history in a world in which fighting was a normal and often necessary activity. The ancient communities of the Middle East were governed according to tribal custom and law, and each ethnic community was in a combative relationship with its neighbor. There was no United Nations in those days, no European Union designed to administer diverse people according to collective rules and laws. Some tribal federations such as the twelve tribes of Israel pooled their resources, but that was for protection rather than for advancing peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The harsh social-economic and political reality of the ancient world often triggered violent and deadly conflicts between communities and peoples, and it is rare that we read a comment such as is found in Judges 3:11: " ... and the land had peace for forty years."

D'var Torah By: 
Understanding Ourselves as Part of the Ein Sof
Davar Acher By: 
Beni Wajnberg

In deciphering the meaning of our portion's call to violence and war (Deuteronomy 21:10), Rabbi Firestone cites the 19th century Chasidic teacher, the S'fat Emet, who understood the opening sentence of the parashah as referring to the daily struggles we face in life. He quotes the S'fat Emet's contention that, "In everything there is a point of divine life, but it is secret and hidden. Throughout the days of the week we are engaged in a battle and struggle to find that point ... "

The Jewish People Comes of Age

The author Anita Diamant boldly pronounced, "This is a generation who have no use for the closeted Jew; the polite, blandly American and only privately Jewish Jews. No more Seinfeld; this bunch is Jewish inside and out" ("Minhag America," HUC-JIR graduation ceremony, April 30, 2008). Her words have not lost any of their resonance in the intervening years.

Alongside her words, we might place those of Rashi, as our Torah commentator of record, on this week's Torah reading, Parashat ChukatChukat begins with an explanation of the parah adumah, "red heifer," ritual. In short, the Israelites are commanded to produce a "red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2), slaughter it, burn it, and transform the ashes into a special "water of lustration" (19:9), used to render what has become impure, pure again.

D'var Torah By: 
Growing Up Means Taking Responsibility for Our Mistakes
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Schwartzman

Rabbi Skloot's reflections on Parashat Chukat are wonderfully insightful and inspiring. Indeed, this is a great time to be Jewish in America. Yes, we have traveled a long path to find the sense of security and self-confidence that allows us as individuals and as communities to openly practice our tradition, express our beliefs and just be ourselves. The example of the parah adumah (red heifer), along with Rashi and Rabbi Skloot's comments, hit home the idea of the importance of "owning" who we are and what we stand for.

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