Tag Archives: Ki-Tetze

Remembering one hurricane while preparing for another

28 Aug

 

Elie Wiesel tells a story that takes place in the small town where he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. A father used to tell his son that he must get up early every day. The son, however, was lazy, and he couldn’t get up. One winter day though, the son couldn’t resist his father’s urging, and he joined his father to go to the Bet Midrash for early morning services and study. It’s early in the morning with snow everywhere. As they were walking, the father noticed a silver coin in the snow. The son picked it up. The father said, you see, my son, if you go to the Bet Midrash early enough then God rewards you.  But the son said, the man who lost it got up even earlier.

One lesson of this story is that we never know when we are going to find a treasure, and we never know when we are going to lose it. One moment we may have what we need, the next moment we may lose it.

Today’s Torah portion, so rich in laws that help create a civil society, contains a law pertaining to lost objects. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; but hashev t’shivem, you must surely return it to your fellow (Deut. 22:1). The double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse teaches us the obligation to repeatedly and diligently return lost property. The Talmud elaborates upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah, in the second chapter of tractate Baba Metzia. It is interesting to note that for generations, this chapter has often served as a young student’s introduction to Talmud study, including in many yeshivot and day schools today. Children, after all, are constantly losing things and finding things, and it makes sense that their teachers would want them to inculcate Jewish values in respecting the property of others.

The Talmud teaches us that we are only responsible for returning a lost article which has some form of identifying mark. Therefore, the rabbis taught: One who finds coins…in any place in which large numbers of people are commonly found, these belong to the finder, because the owner despairs of recovering them (Baba Metzia 21b). In other words, if one finds a dollar bill on a busy street, it is not necessary to search for the original owner. The owner has no hope of finding the dollar.

However, the Talmud also explains that if one finds something that has a siman, a “sign” which demonstrates the owner’s identity, then the finder is obligated to return it. Since the object has an identification mark, the original owner has not despaired of ever finding it again. We must, therefore, do everything in our power to return the object to its hopeful owner. Sometimes these signs are easily apparent – a person’s name engraved on the watch you find – and sometimes the signs are more subtle, such as the location where the object was found or the manner in which the object was placed down.

The Mishnah further underscores the value of restoration: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…”

The rabbis, whose own experience was not always so different from ours, compared their experience to what to them was the idealized time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud teaches that during the Temple Period, the Temple served as a national lost and found. All outstanding lost property was returned in Jerusalem during the Festival seasons, when the entire community of Israel gathered to celebrate at the Temple. The rabbis taught: There was an אבן טוען, a “stone of claims” in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost something would turn there, and anyone who found a lost object would turn there. The finder would stand [by the stone] and announce [his find] and the owner would stand [by the stone] and give the [evidence of] identifying marks and take the object (Baba Metzia 28b). Thus, according to the rabbis, in an ideal and just society, people would return lost objects to their rightful owner.

The rabbis did not live in an ideal world, and neither do we. Some of the difficult aspects of our existence are beyond our control, while others are more in our control. This weekend our community is bracing for a strong tropical storm, perhaps a hurricane. This is the season of this natural wonder. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is a glaring example of the fragility of life–how overnight one may suffer the loss of their home and the entire world that they know. As a result of the Hurricane, millions of people lost their homes and businesses. The hurricane was beyond anyone’s control. However, with the lack of a speedy, coordinated government response at the federal, state and local levels, New Orleans degenerated into anarchy with rampant looting and lawlessness. People were walking into abandoned stores, loading up shopping carts and walking out in full view of police who were powerless to stop them. Clearly, this breakdown of society is precisely what Deuteronomy sought to prevent through laws protecting people’s personal property.

In contrast to the lawlessness of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, it is of some consolation that the aftermath of the hurricane  also brought out the best in people. Millions of people across our country mobilized to fulfill the mitzvah, as it were, of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost object. Americans opened up their hearts, their wallets and their homes to give people shelter, food and hope for rebuilding their future.

The city of Houston hosted thousands of New Orleans residents who fled there for refuge while their homes were underwater. In a disaster, we might not be able to restore lost homes, at least not instantly, but we can help restore lost hope. I would like to conclude by noting that we are now in the month of Elul and have begun the spiritual preparations for the High Holidays. In this light, there is a clear connection between the laws of lost property and teshuvah, the process of repentance that defines this season. Our Torah portion teaches, hashev t’shiveim, “you shall surely return [lost property].” This month we focus on another word with the same Hebrew root, teshuvah, meaning “turning back” or “returning” to God. The awe of the hurricane as a wonder of nature also bids us to reflect on both senses of return. This season is an opportunity for our country to do genuine teshuvah and examine how we can do better to care for the most vulnerable people in our society who do not have adequate shelter or the means to care for themselves. The memory of Katrina serves as an opportunity to heal racial and class divisions in our society. It is an opportunity to remind all branches of government to coordinate with one another to protect the citizens they serve. Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stood at the even toen, the claimant’s stone, and America responded. God forbid there should ever be another disaster like Katrina. In coming days I pray for the safety of our community, and I pray that God will grant us the strength to tap into our better angels of courage, generosity, patience, compassion and kindness.

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Zakhor: The Meaning of Steven Sotloff’s Death

5 Sep
Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Parashat Ki Tetze, ends with the mitzvah of Zakhor: Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek: 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

This Shabbat we remember Steven Sotloff, z”l. An American journalist from Miami, he was also Jewish. In 2008 he made aliyah and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. As a journalist, he was committed to uncovering the truth, even if it meant putting himself in great danger. While on assignment in Syria last year, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. When another American journalist, James Foley, of blessed memory, was brutally murdered and beheaded by ISIS, the terrorists announced that Sotloff was next. Despite an emotional appeal by his mother, Sotloff was brutally executed and beheaded this week. Our nation mourns. Within our shock and outrage, we ask how it is that these ISIS terrorists can imagine the brutality that they have committed.

Within our tradition, the rabbis ask the same question about Amalek. In the Midrash, the rabbis ask what was Amalek’s motive? After all, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites showed the world they had God on their side. What could a nation hope to gain by attacking Israel?

The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned – but cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. Amalek so badly wanted the Israelites destroyed, that they were willing to attack Israel even after having witnessed how God’s powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their God were invincible.

The world has a bad habit of standing by watching terrorists brutalize innocent civilians. The world has been particularly tolerant of Hamas terrorists who threaten the lives of millions of Israelis with rockets and tunnels and then put their own children in harm’s way as defensive shields when Israel retaliates against the rocket fire. When the democratic nation of Israel defends her citizens from terrorism, Israel is reviled throughout the world and accused of war crimes. What many around the world fail to understand is that if terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to exist in Israel, it will spread to the rest of the civilized world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if Israel is forced to tolerate terror, it will come soon to a theater near you. Tragically, that is what we are witnessing with ISIS. President Obama called ISIS a cancer that must be stopped before it spreads even more. It’s an apt metaphor; however, we must recognize both the source of the cancer and prior failures to fight it.

James Foley and Steven Sotloff are hardly the first Americans to fall victims to the diabolical terror of Islamic fundamentalism. This week, we mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died on our soil. The mitzvah of Zakhor extends beyond words and tributes to those who perished at the hands of terrorists. Zakhor requires further action.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I believe our nation failed to seize the moment to challenge Americans to make our society better and more respected in the world. The mitzvah of remembering Amalek caps a parasha with more mitzvoth than any other parasha: fair weights and measures in business, safe building practices in home construction, and protection of the weaker members of society. It’s as if a message of our parasha is that the best antidote to evil is a society that lives by laws and high moral principles. When there is a breakdown of that structure, Amalek is invited to enter.

In the midst of self-reflection of how we in Western civilization have allowed terrorism to spread, there’s another angle to explore. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote three years ago how Osama bin Laden thought he could get away with it. The same question applies today to ISIS and their genocidal rampage. Rav Sacks writes that bin Laden thought he could get away with it because he saw the West in decline.

Sacks writes about the moral decline of our society and the diminishing commitment to communal values throughout the West. He writes: “Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.
The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.”

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other radical groups scoff at our values in which preservation of life reigns supreme. Like Amalek generations ago, they willingly jump into a hot bath to show the world that beheadings can be done. Our leaders must have the moral gumption to fight this tyranny and stop it. Moreover, we as citizens must continue to build a society rooted in the highest values of human dignity.

Rav Sacks’ words about 9/11 ring true today. He writes:

“The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.”

May we be inspired by Parashat Ki Tetze to create a just society that prevents Amalek from rearing its ugly head. That will be the best way we can honor Steven Sotloff’s memory, may his memory be for a blessing.

#TieBlog #Ki-Tetze

4 Sep
"When you go out to war..." (Deut. 21:10)

“When you go out to war…” (Deut. 21:10)

This week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tetze, begins and ends with accounts of war. The midrash interprets the various laws of the opening section (Deuteronomy 21: 10-21) as a narrative thread underscoring the ravages of war. A soldier in the heat of battle covets a female prisoner and, under the power of lust, marries her (vv. 10-14); in the end, he will lose feelings of affection for her and for the children he fathers with her (15-17), and those children will grow up disrespectful (vv. 18-21) of their parents.

The very end of the portion (25: 17-19) recounts the Amelekites’ surprise attack on the Israelites in which they preyed upon the most vulnerable. We have the paradoxical instructions both to “Remember!” and to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” Rashi notes that immediately prior to this section we have the commandment to keep fair weights and measures. He says that the juxtaposition of these texts shows that when we are lax in business ethics, we open ourselves up to communal disaster in which the weakest members of the community will pay the steepest price. Indeed, all of the laws in Ki-Tetze underscore what Rabbi Harold Kushner calls “the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being.” Without this societal norm, we are vulnerable to the scourge of war.