Shabbat Ki Tetze: There Are No Small Details

Judaism is full of lofty ideals and ethical standards, but if you only know your religion in this way you are missing out on a layer of Jewishness which is much closer to home. (No, not the “cultural Judaism” layer of eating bagels….) It’s the “what do I do right now?” layer, what we might call practical Jewish ethics – or what Rabbi Louis Jacobs called “habit forming Jewish ethics”.

Musar, a classic form of Jewish practical ethics, was created by Rabbi Israel Salantar in 19th century Lithuania “with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct” (to learn more click here). The general idea is to avoid creating Jews who keep kosher but act unethically; that is to say, they keep the halakha of practice but not of interpersonal relationships with other people and with the earth. The mitzvot of such relationship responsibility are there, but Jewish study did not focus upon them in the average Lithuanian yeshiva (perhaps assuming that some things are taught at home?).

It is still important not to assume that some things are taught at home, if only to ensure that those who do inculcate such ethics at home are reinforced in the community. This week’s parashat hashavua offers us a fascinating list of daily practical ethics. Of course, this is Torah, so it’s an ancient sense of what our daily conduct should look like, but it’s still interesting to see how many of the ethical acts indicated in parashat Ki Tetze still resonate.

Here are a few examples of what it means, in Torah-terms, to live an ethical Jewish life in every moment, taken from this parashah:

Do not lend at interest to your companion: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. (Devarim 23.20) Perhaps you have heard of the Hebrew Free Loan Association? Many of our grandparents either helped set one of these up for newcomers to the United States in the past century, or benefited from it when they arrived. There are still free Loan Societies, albeit less of them these days (these days we’re not as communally brave) but in some places you can still give – or get – a free loan from your shul. Jews know the supreme value of tzedakah in and of itself, and beyond that, we know that the wheel will come around again, and those who needed help today will likely be those giving it tomorrow. Besides, we are commanded elsewhere in Torah you must open your hand to your needy companion, and lend her whatever is needed (Devarim 15.9-10)

As a daily practice, it is important to remember that this mitzvah may also be understood emotionally; do not expect life to be fair and even. Give of your compassion and of your forgiveness to those who need it. Trust in G-d, not in the one to whom you have lent.

When you come into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat grapes until you have enough at your own pleasure; but you may not put any in your vessel. (Devarim 23.25) This is especially important at this time of year for those of us who like to walk, or bike, through areas where there are trees rich with ripe fruit. Imagine yourself walking through a row of raspberries, ripe and juicy and succulent-looking. Jewish ethics does not expect you to be super-human and forebear entirely. No one could expect you not to grab a few and pop them in your mouth, and no berry farmer can expect it either. What the farmer does have a right to expect, and what Jewish ethics reinforces, is that you are not allowed to bring a big container and fill it up with those raspberries.

All of us in a committed community make demands on each other, without realizing it. Those who do the often unseen but fundamental work are the farmers, sowing seeds of mitzvah in the field; we who benefit from that work should remember not to expect to fill up our own bag with the effort of others without remaining mindful of the cost.

When you vow a vow unto ה your G-d, do not be slack to pay it…otherwise, don’t vow. (Devarim 23.22-23) Everyone knows this, right down to our smallest children: if you make a promise, keep it. Otherwise, don’t make it.

As a daily practice, be careful what you cause others to expect of you. Don’t seem to casually offer yourself, or your attention, if you don’t mean it. If you do promise to help with that hidden but essential work, or have made some other seemingly small or casual gesture of appreciation or support, take it as seriously as if you were promising G-d – because, in a community that strives to be holy, G-d is evoked in our midst precisely when we are careful of each other, and remember our ethics in every small detail.

In the month of Elul, we are encouraged to concentrate on what really matters, and on how we are doing. Consider how a Jewish framework of practical ethics might help you see that all your deeds are really offerings, lifted up as an expression of who you are, and the impact you are having on our planet and our community.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year

Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One