Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is packed with a wide variety of commandments, including a short passage that commands us to keep honest weights with us for measuring goods when we travel, and another set of honest weights for use at home. We are then told that those who do not use whole and honest weights (literally ‘just weights’) are abhorrent to God. (Deut. 25:13-16) Why do we need separate weights for home and not-at-home? And why is the strongest possible language of condemnation – toevah (abomination) used here? The word toevah itself is a clue, because it is used exclusively to describe relationships. In this case, I think the Torah is suggesting that we use whole and honest weights with each other wherever we are, which is another way of saying that we must deal justly and honestly with each other at all times. The distinction between home and public also reminds us of the importance of integrity – we should not attempt to cheat in either venue. When we cultivate these kinds of consistent and just relationships we, our homes and our communities become more whole. When we do the opposite, everyone suffers – including and perhaps especially ourselves.
As I prepare to leave tomorrow morning to join the NAACP Journey for Justice, this little morsel of Torah really resonates with me. The justice, honesty and love we want for our loved ones at home is critical, and we must use the same measures for establishing justice, honesty and love with all of our neighbors.
Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9
Our parasha begins with the commandment to establish shoftim u'shotrim (judges and officials) throughout the land. At first glance, the context for this seems a bit odd, because it follows directly after an extended section on how to observe and celebrate the Jewish holidays. The Gur Hassidic Torah Commentary, Likutei Yehudah, provides a compelling answer: tzedakah is a necessary part of every holy observance. Tzedakah simultaneously means charity, righteousness and justice. The lesson is clear - service to God cannot be authentic without righteous behavior and the establishment of justice in the land. When we oppress each other, we cut ourselves off from God - and when we see injustice and do nothing we are perpetuating the injustice ourselves.
Next week I will participate in the NAACP Journey for Justice for a day with my daughter, near Columbia South Carolina. The Journey for Justice is a 40-day 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, to raise awareness about and protest against a whole series of racial injustices that persist across our nation. I am humbled by the opportunity to participate, and in this month of self-reflection, I am asking myself the extent to which I have allowed myself not only to be an innocent bystander, but also to have benefited from white privilege.
The march for me was about undoing laws and policies that create or enshrine racial injustice. As the day of my departure approaches, I begin to understand that it must also be about our attitudes and emotions concerning race; about our assumptions and our fears, and also the values we aspire to embrace. Walking for a day is important to me, but by itself, it will never be enough.
Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
I used to think that keeping kosher was nonsense, that God cared far more about how I act than what I eat. Then one day, I learned otherwise. This week's torah portion, Re'eh, lists various categories of animals that are not kosher for eating. Have you ever wondered why?
While the categories themselves have some interest for me, I would like to explore the more basic concept that some animals are permitted and some are forbidden. The Torah uses the language of 'clean' and 'unclean' to describe these animals, allowing us only those animals that are labeled 'clean.' These are confusing terms, because we know that the 'unclean' animals are not more dirty than the 'clean' ones. So I would prefer a different terminology: animals that are 'permitted to us' and those that are 'safe from us.'
What a remarkable concept! The world and all that is within it are not ours to consume. We may live in a consumer society, but keeping kosher reminds us that the world is not our oyster (which is ironically not a kosher food). Consider the environmental implications of this idea! According to Torah, God placed us in Eden in order to tend and care for the Garden, and not to use it all up. Every time I sit down to eat, I am reminded of this by the limits that are placed upon my diet, and the constant reminders help me to live more responsibly. Imagine how different our world would be if we all took this lesson of kashrut to heart. Perhaps profits would become less important than sustainability, or climate change a greater priority than partisan politics. On a more personal level, we might become less concerned with keeping up with our neighbors, or elevating our power and status and instead become more interested in how we use the time that has been given us as a great gift from God.
Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25
Eikev contains several of our most cherished mitzvot, commandments that will sound familiar to all who know the shema v'ahavta::
Therefore impress these words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children -- speak of them when you are sitting at home and when you are walking on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up; (Deut. 11:18-19)
With two teenagers of my own, I have been wondering what it means to teach our children words of Torah when we are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise up. Can we really talk about Torah every moment of every day? Should we?
If you have kids, and if they are anything like my kids, then you know that after a certain (and probably short) period of time that they would tune out our words of Torah. Even worse, they might start to resent these teachings, and choose to distance themselves from our tradition. Can it be that following the commandment to teach our children Torah at all times and in all places actually undermines their connection to Torah and God?
Thankfully, the answer is no. Not only is it possible to successfully follow the commandment, but when we do it well, I think our children will thank us for it.
Our kids learn far more from what we do than from what we say. If we say one thing and then do the opposite, we have taught our children to do the same. These verses carefully cover every conceivable time and place for the transmission of Torah, because we are supposed to teach not only with our words, but with our deeds. Judaism is a tradition of doing, and only when our feet consistently follow our words, will our children be inspired and truly learn Torah, For me, modeling our values and practices is one of the most beautiful and greatest challenges of parenthood, and therefore, is well worth the effort.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras