Parashat Ki Titzeh falls during the month of Elul, the month where we are already beginning Kheshbon Nefesh (Taking stock of ourselves) and Teshuvah).
As I have written in the past, teshuvah is a threefold process we can learn from the root of the Hebrew word, shin bet bet. Teshuvah first means “answer.” If we accept what the philologists tell us that “sin” and “samekh” sometimes switch, it is a reasonable midrashic stretch to derive the word l’histovev, to turn, and then we have the shuv, to return. We must answer God’s call, make an effort to turn and change our ways, and to return to our true and highest selves. We know that, as we learn from Mishna Yoma, our teshuvah when we have wronged others involves seeking their forgiveness. In many cases it also requires tikun, fixing what we have broken.
This brings me back to our Torah portion. In it we have one of the most amazing commandments repeated three times, “You must not ignore/avert your eyes/remain indifferent” (Deut. 22:3) This comes up in the specific context of returning lost animals or other property, or helping when an animal has fallen. However, it is a recipe for life. When God’s still small voice (??? ???? ???) calls us to teshuvah , we can answer it or ignore it. When the world around us requires tikun, we can respond to what we see or we can turn a blind eye and ignore.
We are taught in Ki Titzeh, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryperson or a stranger in one of he communities of your land.” (Deut. 24:14) For a number of years, we would take the students in our human rights Beit Midrash to the shopping mall in order to teach about “transparent workers,” the people who serves us in stores and supermarkets and gas stations whom many of us simply do not truly see. We have now idea if they are being paid a living wage and treated fairly and decently.
This week Rabbi Anita Steiner and I visited El-Arakib, the unrecognized Bedouin village of some 300 souls sandwiched between two JNF forests that are expanding and closing in on it, that has now been demolished and re-demolished four times. This, even though there is a pending court case on the ownership of the land, a step necessary before even thinking about trying to obtain the elusive zoning plan that might allow building. (It is of course unrealistic to think that the Israel would create a zoning plan for them if it is state land.) As we pulled out on to the main road, Anita commented to me that most people would not even know that El-Arakib exists. There is no sign, and it is set back. They are transparent, making it all the easier to ignore their plight, avert our eyes from the horrible scenes of destruction I described a few days ago, or to hear their cries. When I think of the 300 souls in El-Arakib and all of the other Bedouin who do not even have an equal chance to receive back some of the hundreds of thousands of dunams expropriated from them, I am reminded of Rashi’s comment at the end of Ki Titzeh so often quoted by Rabbi Ben Hollander z”l. Rashi teaches that the reason that Amalek is mentioned immediately after the prohibition of having uneven weights and mesures in order to cheat people is because this type of behavior by us invites Amalek to attack us, “If you falsify weights and measures, you should fear attack by the enemy. As it is written, ‘Deceiving scales are detested by God.’ (Proverbs 11:1) and in the next verse, “When intentional wrong doing appears, disgrace follows.’” (Rashi to Deut. 25:17) The sages of course expanded the prohibition against “eifah v’eifah” beyond unjust measures to all forms of double and discriminatory standards.
Also this week we demonstrated against the further desecration of graves in the Mamila cemetery last week by the Jerusalem Municipality, even violating a court stop work order. My children sometimes ask me, “Daddy, why demonstrate? Demonstrations only sew discord and strife.” I am reminded of Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the commandment appearing both this week (Deut. 24:17) and next (Deut. 27:19) not to wrong the stranger, the widow or the orphan through legal proceedings. (????). Ibn Ezra comments on 24:17, “For they have no strength (in some versions ‘helper’), and they are hidden. The stranger, the orphan and the widow are mentioned hear because if the judge subverts the case of others, they will protest and make the matter known. However, the stranger, the orphan and the widow do not have the ability to do so.” They are transparent. We must therefore stand by them to be the ozer (helper) that gives oz (strength.)
By the way, we do not always ignore problems by not knowing about them. Sometimes it is through excuses. We talk about the Bedouin as illegal trespassers and squatters, ignoring the fact that they are “trespassing” on lands expropriated from them. The Jerusalem Municipality talks about “fake graves” in the Mamila cemetery, as if it is our business what Muslims place in graves within their cemetery. People love to bring proofs that Islam allows the destruction of cemeteries, as if we can equate between what Muslims decide for themselves on their holy sites and what we can decide for them.
For many years I have asked myself why there isn’t more of an outcry in Israeli society with 1/5 -1/4 of all Israelis living under the poverty line, even leading to actual hunger among the elderly and children. I heard one researcher explain this by pointing out that most of the poverty is concentrated in certain sectors. If we are not part of those groups (Israeli Arabs, Ultra-Orthodox, single parents, etc.) we simply do not feel it or notice. We ignore their plight because they are transparent to us.
Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote the following meditation (?????):
Judaism begins with the commandment:
Hear of Israel!
But what does it really mean to hear?
The person who attends a concert
With his mind on business,
Hears-but does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of birds
And thinks only of what he will have for dinner,
Hears – but does not really hear.
The man who listens to the words of his friend,
Or his wife, or his child,
And does not catch the note of urgency:
“Notice me, help me, care about me,”
Hears-but does not really hear.
The man who listens to the news
And thinks only about how it will affect business,
Hears-but does not really hear.
The person who stifles the sound of his conscience
And tells himself he has done enough already,
Hears – bud does not really hear…..
On this Shabbat, O Lord,
Sharpen our ability to hear….
May we hear You, O God.
For only if we hear You
Do we have the right to hope
That You will hear us.
Hear the prayers we offer to You this day, O God,
And may we hear them too.
May this time of kheshbon nefesh and teshuvah, this time when we pray more earnestly and urgently than ever, Sh’ma koleinu (Hear our voice), be a time when we learn not to ignore God’s call to us. May we answer, may we make the effort to turn, and may we not avert our eyes from the needs of our families and of the world around us crying out for tzedek.
Shabbat Shalom, Arik