Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going Out So We Can Come Back In

Going Out So We Can Come Back In
Musings on Ki Teitzei and the Season of Elul
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD August 20, 2010

I wrote my Temple Topics column for September last week because I had to. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to fulfill my responsibility at the start of my second decade of service to this congregational family. Rather, I was afraid that I would be found guilty of the worst sin possible, as I had been taught by my rabbinic advisor and homiletics teacher – of having MANY good ideas. And worse, knowing where I HAD to get to meant limiting the ideas that were most filling and energizing my brain at that moment.

But it got done, and as you will see, hopefully this week when it arrives in your mail box, it got done because I was able to tie in what I wanted to say with what I needed to say. It is nice on the occasions when that works – when the experiences you want to share teach the lessons you feel need to be taught.

I am hoping that tonight is, if not a continuation of that effort, then at least a parallel experience, where the items I want to share truly ARE germane to the message I hope we learn together from our Torah text.

We are in that period of preparation for the upcoming High Holy Days – a most unique time in our Jewish year, one which I think is grossly undervalued and underappreciated. Equally undervalued, in my humble opinion, are the Torah texts that lead up to the Holy Days, even N’tzavim, which is repeated on Yom Kippur.

Take tonight’s portion - Ki Teitzei - “when you go out.” Since the portion begins with a statement about how our ancestors were expected to behave when they went out to battle their enemies, I think many modern readers, products of the anti-war movement of the 60’s and their children and students, tend to under value the content because of the martial overtones. Which is really too bad, because it seems to me that a legal and ethical treatise that expects proper behavior from us EVEN in times of conflict, would be a powerful teacher of the importance of those same values and ethics in more peaceful and normal times.

It doesn’t help us to fully value this week’s portion that the BEST example of one of these statements about ethics during conflict actually comes from the end of last week’s portion, rather than starting this portion as it could have, and probably should have. Because the first Ki Teitzei statement, made last week, is the one in which we are told we cannot cut down the trees surrounding a town we are attempting to besiege – even if it helps the war effort. The rationale given is simple but powerful – are trees people, with the ability to defend themselves? And the implicit message is even more profound – if we can go out of our way to protect trees even in time of war, how much more should we be willing and able to go out of our way to treat our fellow human beings properly at all times?

The ethics taught in the opening of our portion on this Shabbat are no less powerful. If, in the conduct of battle, you are victorious, and see a beautiful woman among the captives, whom you wish to take as wife, you are obligated NOT to treat her as a captive or a slave, but to give her the full rights and considerations of a free woman being taken as wife. Powerful on its own, but it leads to a discussion about a man’s responsibility to both of his wives, when he loves one more than another, and to his sons by those wives, who shall not be disadvantaged because of their father's relative feelings towards their mothers.

It includes the rules for the defiant son, which are so harsh, that the Rabbis of the Talmud had no choice but to close read the text as saying that the child had to be SOOO irredeemable, that both his father AND his mother felt they had no choice but to turn him over to the community for punishment. It includes the rules prohibiting gender based cross-dressing, not on grounds of sexual immorality, but on grounds of role confusion within the larger community.

This first section concludes with a couple of remarkable ethical propositions. We are taught that if we chance upon a bird’s nest by the side of the road, we must not take the young and the mother together. We must let the mother go first before taking the babies or the eggs. When we build a house, we are expected to build a parapet on our roof. Why? Because even someone attempting to rob us via access to and from our roof, is entitled to protection from accidental harm! Then we are taught not to sow our field with 2 diverse seeds, not to yoke an ox and an ass together for plowing, and not to mix linen and wool in our garments.

These mitzvot are challenging enough individually, together they will probably take our Torah study group multiple weeks to plow through! They seem to carry a common element that everything has its proper place and proper role in the cosmos as created by God; that we are responsible for each other, even in extreme cases, and responsible for nature as well, even down to details that seem otherwise insignificant, like the prohibition against sha’atnez – the mixing of wool and linen in our garments.

But most intriguing, the final words here, in 22:12 “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” The allusion, although the Hebrew word is not used here, is to the tzitzit, the fringes on the corner of a tallit today, and of most male upper body garments in the Biblical world. The purpose of the tzitzit was symbolic – they served as a reminder of the commandments God expected us to follow as Jews.

My reading here is that all of these extreme circumstances individually teach us powerful ethical lessons, lessons that we would do well to acknowledge and re-embrace during this month of Elul, season of self-inventory and atonement seeking. Collectively, we are expected to recognize that God, thru the received Torah, is the source of these ethics, which we value because they order our life by influencing all that we do, not just in these extreme situations. And therefore, our atonement seeking at this season likewise must be organized in a manner that starts deep within the self, but eventually must allow us to come back into communion with each other, and with God.

Likewise, there is a powerful lesson in the order of the portions of this season, that influences how we can best work through the month of Elul. This week we read Ki Teitzei – when you go out. Next week we read Ki Tavo – when you come in. For many years I have recognized and taught that before we can come in – to our neighbor’s and loved ones seeking forgiveness, even to God on the Holy Days, we first need to go out – from the familiar and comfortable; to strip away that with which we have surrounded ourselves in life, to lay ourselves bare.

But this summer, I actually got to do exactly that. I left my normal comfortable pattern to spend 2 weeks at the URJ’s 6 Points Sports Academy early in the summer. In this brand new camp setting, where there were no long established traditions of how things had to be done which would otherwise have needed to be left behind to achieve change, we were free to come into the new experience and make things happen freely as we felt they could and should be from the start.

These successes, but more important, this realization, helped me come back into Camp Harlam after going out to 6 Points, and be a much more effect instrument of change for the many aspects of Harlam’s program that we sought to improve upon. I knew why we had to change, knew how to explain it to those who might be slow to embrace the new. But, I also knew the change would not happen quickly or automatically, so I was better able to see the small steps and not get lost in the larger picture.
For each of us as we work through Elul, starting with the introspection and self-inventory, then going out to seek the forgiveness of those we are now better aware that we have hurt, before we can come back in to plead for our lives before God on Yom Kippur, I hope we have the clarity of experiences new and old to bring to our efforts. The ability to find comfort in the familiar, and still put it aside temporarily to dig deeper into our lives. The courage to see and admit the unpopular or inconvenient truths when they pop up in our lives, and to work to change them. The convenience of significant mileposts along our journeys’ paths that allow and obligate us to look backwards to where we have been, and forward to where we hope to go, at the same time!

Having had those opportunities this summer as I went out from here, I feel blessed to come back into my home during Elul, able to see these Torah portions and their incredible power and spiritual value even more clearly than in other years; to apply these lessons better myself; and hopefully to teach them and their significance to others better. I look at the large values taught in the text through small and extreme situations, and realize that we have the same opportunity to do so in and with our own lives, by behaving in both the extreme and the mundane every day circumstances we face in the way we know we should, even when circumstances would appear to allow us to stray or take some short-cut. If I am blessed by my experiences with a deeper clarity of vision that allows me to learn a lesson from trees, or plow animals, or even the materials that make up my clothing, shouldn’t I be rushing to get out of myself and share my discovery with others?

These are the messages of Elul and our atonement seeking season. These are the messages of our Torah portions during these weeks. These are the lessons I have learned this summer – in both my going out to new experiences, and my coming back into the familiar. These are the values that as Jews we seek to model in our lives, even as we seek to live up to them. May we all succeed in this preparatory season in doing so. May we grow from that success to seek and to find true atonement and forgiveness with each other and with God at the upcoming Holy Days. And may we carry this new-found deeper awareness of the self and the possibilities and realities around us into our new year, gaining value from it every day, using it to help make our world make more sense for ourselves and others. KYR

No comments:

Post a Comment