Shabbat Ki Tetze: Doing Battle In Jewish

The first words of this week’s parashah are כי תצא למלחמה ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to do battle.” When one looks for these words in the Torah scroll, it’s easy to mistake the place, for the same phrase appears three times in a short space of parchment. All three have in common that in this part of the Torah our ancestors are recounting the Jewish way to fight.
Jewish tradition does not shy away from any human behavior; we insist that no matter what you are doing, there is a way to do it according to Jewish ethics. A teacher of mine used to say that there’s even a Jewish way to slide into second base – with your cleats down, and without attempting to intimidate the opposing player off the bag out of fear of harm.
Of course, when we read in the Torah during the month of Elul of “going out into battle” we recognize that much of the struggle against evil is that which takes place inside ourselves. Jewish ethical literature requires during this time of Atonement that we seek out the inimical forces that are part of us, and battle them for control of our hearts and minds – and behavior.
But there is also a Jewish way to behave when we are facing a even more difficult and even frightening opposition. In the current climate of rising hatred and fear, many feel that when some would march in our streets declaring the tenets of their hatred, we must be there to counter that voice and resist that hostility. To do this is to fulfill the mitzvah of going out to oppose the enemy – in this case, not only of our well-being and peace of mind, but also of the peace and well-beingn of our society.
If you are moved to “go out against the enemy” – and yes, people who commit violence with word and act are our enemy whether they threaten us or our neighbors – you are nevertheless not permitted to consider yourself as “going out” from your Jewishness. Thus these three repetitions of the phrase ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to battle” are instructive:
When you take the field against your enemies and they are delivered into your hands, and you see something that you want. (Deut. 21.10)
The parashah begins with this warning, that just because you are caught up in a situation of disorder, you may not take advantage of it. You may not simply take anything you see that you decide that you want. A protest is not a time when ethics do not apply – Judaism insists that you be a Jew at all moments, no matter what the provocation or temptation of your yetzer hara’, your evil inclination.
When you go out as a group against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward. (Deut. 23.10)
This command requires that we look at ourselves and the group we have gathered together in order to go forth and do battle. Related to the warning in last week’s parashat hashavua, we must pursue justice justly – just means and just ends. What is the group’s ethic? its rhetoric? its aims? Who are you allying with, to whom are you adding the strength of your voice and your presence?
When you go forth to do battle against your enemies and you see horses and chariots – forces larger than yours – have no fear of them, for HaShem is with you. (Deut. 20.1)
There’s a moment when one’s group may be confronted with a sense of being overwhelmed by the forces we confront: the scale of the national catastrophe, the hostility of White Supremacists, or the militarized police who deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against unarmed people expressing their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Just seeing the riot police show up with their armed vehicles offers a moment of empathy with the way our ancestors must have felt when the Hittites showed up on their shiny chariots with their fearsome spears made of the latest synthetic, bronze.
The Torah’s promise does not mean that G*d will protect us from harm in such a case; indeed, members of our own kehillah have been hurt in gatherings since January 20 of this year. The Torah only promises that G*d will be with us when we go out to do battle with evil, meaning that even if we’re harmed, even if we’re arrested, even if we are – G*d forbid – killed, if we have gone forth to the battle with care for ethics both in our acts and that of the group with which we ally, we will be able to rest in the assurance that our intentions and our acts aimed toward righteousness.
In memory of
Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney (Mississippi),
Edward Crawford (Ferguson),
William Schraeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer (Kent State)
Heather Heyer (Charlottesville)
and
too many more
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Shabbat Shoftim: You Too Are a Judge, and Must Be

The beginning of parashat Shoftim calls for us to ensure justice in the communities in which we live.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

Set up judges and officers in all your gates, everywhere that you are privileged to live by G*d’s grace. The judges must judge the people righteously.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

There must no manipulation of judgment, neither by bias nor by bribe. There is no one, no matter how righteous, who can truly withstand the influence of a gift.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  {ס}

Justice, you must pursue justice, if you want to live and thrive on the earth which is a gift to you from HaShem your God.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

These verses have attracted much commentary:

1. What are “your gates”? The “gates”, and the implicit “city” to which they belong, symbolically represent the individual; your “gates” refers to your eyes and your ears. They are the gates through which all influences and information enters, and we are, each one of us, to “set up judges” (this is written in the singular) to monitor all that enters our minds and hearts.

2. What does it mean to “judge…righteously”? First, judge yourself in the same circumstances, and consider what you would do; then perhaps you will come closer to judging “righteously”. 

3. Why are we told to pursue “justice” twice? Because the means and the end must both be righteous. 

These verses are aimed at judges, but our tradition internalizes them to refer to each one of us – this is a common interpretive technique in Judaism, and it expresses a fundamental truth of our perspective: everything belongs to everything else, everyone is part of everyone else. A dishonest judge does not simply ruin the lives of those s/he condemns unjustly; that injustice scars not only the victim but everyone linked to that victim. And then everyone who hears about the dishonesty in the system who is demoralized and turns away multiplies the injustice, and then the trauma of the injustice causes the entire system to rot, a little at a time.

Many of us live in an environment in which we resist judging and being judged – who has the right to judge me, or you? But Jewish ethical teachings insist: we must all ensure that robust judgement does exist and is expressed at the highest standard – because it is, in the end, what allows us to live

“You must pursue justice if you want to live”. Here are the two sides of the interdependent balance: justice, and life. We are surrounded with examples of how the lack of one leads to the end of the other; at our peril we believe that we can turn away and enjoy life apart.

In this month of Elul we are encouraged to judge ourselves, and each other, and the world of which we are a vital part. May we come closer with each attempt to be righteous to a world where justice flourishes, and may we know ourselves to be part of the righteousness our world starves for.

Shabbat Ki Tavo: What Kind of Jew Are You?

This week’s parashah begins with a rare example of actual prayer formula in ancient Israel. Most of the time, “prayer”, that is, seeking to communicate with G-d, was expressed in a non-verbal form, that of sacrifice. A close look at the book VaYikra (Leviticus) will demonstrate the truth my former teacher taught in his book The Sanctuary of Silence: the kohanim did not recite words when they brought the prescribed sacrifices, and neither did the Israelites who brought them.

This is different, and it’s worth considering why. Here’s how the parashat hashavua starts:

It shall be that when you come into the land which G-d is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell there, you shall take the first of all your fruit of the earth that you have been given by G-d, and you shall put it in a basket. Bring it to the place that G-d chooses as a dwelling place for the Name. Go in unto the priest and recite: I proclaim this day unto ה your G-d that I am come into the land which G-d promised our ancestors to give us.   – Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26.1-3

This is the model for the fall harvest later called Sukkot, which became the most significant holy day in the ritual calendar of ancient Israel. But let’s stay with the ancient words themselves. The great jurist and commentator Maimonides suggests the reason for this ritual is to reinforce Jewish ethics:

The first of everything is to be devoted to G-d, and by so doing we accustom ourselves to being generous and to limit our appetite for eating and our desire for property…it promotes humility as well. For the one who brings the first fruits takes the basket upon his shoulders and proclaims the kindness and goodness of G-d. This ceremony teaches us that it is essential in the service of G-d to recall previous experiences of suffering and distress in days of comfort. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.39)

This parashah and Maimonides both call out to us every bit as clearly as the sound of the Shofar, the voice we hear calling us to account every day during the month of Elul. We must realize:

1. one cannot come before G-d without being ready to answer for that which one has inherited.

2. one does not come empty handed. One’s acts speak for themselves.

3. one must come in humility and awareness of suffering for one’s offering to be accepted.

As we prepare to stand before G-d ourselves soon, during the High Holy Days and then immediately afterward with our own observance of the harvest festival of Sukkot, we are naturally inclined to take a good look at ourselves and what we bring. Consider yourself as the inheritor of that ancient Israelite farmer: what are the fruits of your labor? what is in your hands, figuratively speaking, when you come to the place where the Name is found for you? What does it mean for your offering to be accepted? Who are you when you stand before G-d?

I offer you the powerful poem attached as you consider, on this Shabbat which is more than halfway through the month of Elul, who it is standing there when you come before G-d on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and all the days to come of 5775.

http://hevria.com/rachel/rachel-kind-jew/ 

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

Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?

 

On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.

 

It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.

 

Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:

 

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)

 

We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.

 

Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 

 

Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.

 

Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.

 

Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.

 

Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?

 

The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.

 

As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.