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