Shabbat Ki Tetze: You Can’t Choose Whether, but You Can Choose How

The title of our parashat hashavua is ki tetze, “when you go out”. The Torah is continuing to give instruction for how we shall behave when we go out from our place, and a number of possibilities are offered here. What we come to realize is that there is a Jewish ethic for any act. These ethics are context-bound in their particulars, but we are able to discern what the theologian Louis Jacobs called the meta-message of the Torah: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. 

It’s interesting to note that the words ki tetze make it clear that one has no choice; one does “go out” into the world, out of one’s place. As an ethical teaching, this teaches several lessons:

1. We don’t have a choice but to go out: none of us are able to create a place to be which encompasses all of life – we have to leave it sometimes, as a bird leaves the nest, perforce, to find food.

2. When we do go out into the world from our place, we must carry the teachings – the ethics – with us. As it is said, “in your home and on your way”.

3. We also “go out” from our place in other ways: to truly live in the world, we are sometimes forced to leave our “comfort zone”, whether that be a comfortable assumption about the world, a friend or family member, or the story we are telling ourselves about our place in reality. 

I knew a Rabbi once who said that after twenty years of work with a particular congregation, “I finally had them where I wanted them. But then things kept right on changing!” As long as we live, we don’t get to choose whether we are going to “go out” from the comfortable assumptions and arrangements we have made – change does happen. Our only choice is to decide how we will greet the changes in our lives, how we will “go out” from our places.

As Jews we are expected to use our power to choose to maintain a certain ethic in the world, no matter where we find ourselves or what happens to us. The only sure support we have in a changing world is Torah. Keep studying, and keep seeking understanding – it’s very different from gathering facts!

Let these words from near the end of the parashah help you consider just how much more there is to discover in your understanding. The following verses are the basis for much Jewish business ethics, but there is one more teaching hidden within them:

 

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּכִיסְךָ, אֶבֶן וָאָבֶן:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small.

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּבֵיתְךָ, אֵיפָה וְאֵיפָה:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a great and a small.

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.

A perfect and just weight you must have; a perfect and just measure you must have; that your days may be long upon the land which your God gives you.

כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה:  כֹּל, עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל. 

For all that do such things, each one that does unrighteously, is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. (Devarim 25.13-16)

The basic ethic here is that you must acknowledge the correct weight (that is, value) in buying and selling – whether in your traveling “bag” (laptop?) or at home. Notice the strong words of condemnation for one who acts unethically in this way. One who cheats is an abomination – the word in Hebrew refers to one who is not righteous, but the opposite. This word is much stronger than that used for homosexuality, which is to’evah, a word that relates to a local cultural norm. 

There is so much more in a sophisticated approach to the Torah than you can know – and more support for your ethical journey than you can imagine. Don’t go out there without it.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good 5776

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Shabbat Toldot: What Are We Teaching Our Children?

This parashat hashavua couldn’t be more timely (it happens so very often that I can’t help but get a bit mystical about it). This week we read of the birth of twins to Rebekah and Isaac, and of the oracle that Rebekah receives when she asks after their – and her – fate:

Two nations are in your womb, 

two peoples shall be separated from your body; 

one people shall be stronger than the other people; 

and the elder shall serve the younger.     (Gen. 25.23)

Esav is born first, followed by Yaakov. And upon this birth order hangs a destiny: once again, for the second (and not the last) time in Jewish history, the first born is passed over in the succession. The way it happens this time is through subterfuge: Isaac calls upon Esav to bring him a meal of the kind of wild game that only Esav, the hunter, can provide, and then Isaac will give Esav, his first born, his “innermost blessing”. But Rebekah hears, and devises a ruse so that Isaac will bless Yaakov instead of Esav.  Which is what happens.

Commentators write that Rebekah was only following G-d’s will as revealed to her in the oracle. Some even implicate Isaac, and say that he was in on the deception. Only Esav is left out of this scenario; Esav, who cries bitterly upon hearing of his loss, “bless me too, Father! don’t you have even one blessing left for me?”  Esav’s cry of pain is still difficult for us to hear. Our commentators say whatever they can to prove that Esav was really the bad guy, he was just pretending to be innocent and hurt.

Just as Ishma’el is first born, so is Esav; and just as Isaac inherits his parents’ legacy, so does Yaakov. And so a family pattern is replicated, which records, even in the sacred text which clearly shows that this is how it should be, that it comes at a terrible human cost.

What is Rebekah teaching Esav, and Yaakov? 

A nine-year-old in a local school accuses a classmate of belonging to “that people which is killing other people and taking their land.” Where does a nine-year-old get such an idea? Who did she hear talking?

Many normal human beings of average intelligence tell me that the only way to deal with “those barbarians” is to “kill them all before they kill us”. Why do we generalize in such a terrifying way? And what has led us to say such a thing?

I am reminded of the old “South Pacific” song: “You’ve got to be taught to hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” We have all been taught some dangerous beliefs. Some of us put our trust in such ideas as the eternal validity of going to war in order to secure peace. Or that only force will restore order. Or that today’s threat must be dealt with on its face, regardless of its cause.

That approach certainly supports the military industrial complex, and it certainly will cause gun sales to remain robust. But it does nothing to heal the pain. It will only replicate it, for another generation. Violence can never end violence. The truth is more difficult, and it rests in what we learn throughout our entire lifetime. This week’s horrors – murder, torture, and exile – are not the impulse of a day. They are the fruit of deep movements within the psyche, long histories of experience, and the lack of an opportunity to learn how not to despair.

How are we to respond? how are we to choose our acts? Jewish ethics tell us that

Every person has within a spark of G-d

Every person deserves to be judged with the benefit of the doubt

Justice can only be pursued on a first-hand knowledge basis

Here’s the challenge: Jewish ethics are not followed only when we feel powerful, righteous and optimistic from a distance. Anyone can be ethical under those conditions!

Let Ishma’el and Isaac teach us what their parents did not learn. The two men defied the estrangement  ordained for them and, as we see in last week’s parashah, they bury their father Abraham together (and hopefully bury some of what he taught them in his own actions). Let Esav and Yaakov tell us what their parents might have said, as recorded in a parashah only two weeks away, when the two brothers meet again after many years of life and learning:

Esav ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept….And Esav said: ‘I have enough, my brother, let that which you have be yours.’ “(Gen. 33.4, 9)

Both Esav and Ishma’el are apparently able to refuse to be overwhelmed by bitterness, even though they have been cheated of what everyone knew was the first-born’s birthright. Esav seems to be able to see that even though he was bereft, now he has enough – he also is blessed. In the course of many years, Esav found the ability to look beyond the destiny imposed upon him and learn something that requires more thought, more emotional maturity, and brings more chance of healing.

We on this planet have much more to learn before we can hear the cry of pain at the bottom of evil. We must keep talking as honestly and compassionately as possible toward each other, and keep trying to help each other forward toward the light at the end of all this darkness.