The Israelites are approaching the Promised Land, an uncharted land, with a prophetic understanding that redemption can only be found there. They are ostensibly starting from scratch. Moreover, for them, there is only desert, hostility, and the dire prospect of facing their own vulnerability, insecurity, and uncertainty in God’s protective role. They do not know the potential outcome of any choice they make. We might just be the Israelites at this very moment of beginning the process of atonement of the High Holydays, while metaphorically the ground under us shifts incessantly and our well-being and life’s meaning and purpose are at stake. This process of asking for and giving forgiveness climaxes on Judgment Day for Jews, on Yom Kippur, and is a lesson and a practice in penance, not a time for God’s punitive response to our transgressions, great or small. Our liturgy reflects the compassion and mercy that we seek for our human failings, and the commitment to live a more ethical life because of these failings. The Kol Nidre prayer annuls our unfulfilled vows, Ashamnu – “we are guilty” begins a general confession of moral sins with the beating of the heart (and here I mean literally that we beat each word out with our fists upon our hearts), and al chet is the long list of all the possible ways in which we have not lived up to our own ethical standards and those of society, to name a few of the penitential prayers that we repeat throughout this season. From the content of these prayers, we learn that the whole process of teshuvah in the Jewish tradition, of asking forgiveness, is a very specific and calculated path towards settling that shaky ground in front of us and securing handholds to push us forward.
With this curated teshuvah guide throughout our liturgy in mind, we turn to this week’s Torah portion, ki Tetzei.
This week’s reading is full of commandments, more than any other reading in the annual cycle. In clear, concise detail, they cover all sorts of things that can arise in daily life, governing relations between spouses, parents and children, buyers and sellers, and so forth. Despite this great variety, however, there does seem to be an underlying principle in many of them—one that, precisely because of the great number of different topics, is easily overlooked. But it’s there. Consider the following list of some of the commandments included in this week’s reading:
- To protect the rights of a less-favored wife in a polygamous marriage
- Not to display overnight the corpse of an executed man
- To care for and return a neighbor’s lost animal
- To help a neighbor whose ox or donkey has fallen under its burden
- To release a captured mother bird
- To give asylum to a runaway slave and not to return the slave to the slave’s master
- Not to charge interest on a loan to a fellow Israelite
- To allow [the poor] to eat from someone’s vineyard, so long as the eater does not put the grapes in a container to take away
- To allow [the poor] to pluck ears of grain from someone’s field, so long as no scythe is used
- To defer a newly married man from military service
- Not to seize a borrower’s a hand-mill or an upper millstone as repayment of a loan
- Not to enter a borrower’s house to seize a pledged item
- Not to delay a dayworker’s wages overnight
- Not to disadvantage the stranger or the orphan in court
- Not to take a widow’s clothing as repayment of a loan
- Not to retrieve a sheaf forgotten in one’s field, but to leave it for the stranger, the orphan, or the widow
- After beating one’s olive trees once for the fruit, not to go over them again, but to leave the remainders for the stranger, the orphan, or the widow.
- The same goes for the remaining grapes in one’s vineyard—the second pick is to be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.
- If someone is sentenced to be flogged, not to have him beaten more than 39 strokes.
- Not to muzzle an ox while it is grinding grain.
- To perform levirate marriage and thereby safeguard the rights of a deceased brother and his widow.
- And not to defraud some customers by keeping two sets of weights or containers.
The common thread joining all of these is that same precious quality we find throughout our High Holiday liturgy, called in biblical Hebrew racḥamim, mercy. In so many of these situations, the person who has the upper hand is called to act mercifully toward the weaker party or the powerless.
Of course, this is a somewhat biased listing—there are other commandments in this week’s reading that have little to do with mercy. I’ve refrained from listing above things that in today’s society might even be seen as altogether unmerciful, for example, three commandments at the start of this week’s reading, governing:
- Permission to marry a woman captured from the enemy in a victorious battle
- The obligation to lend with interest to a foreigner, but to take no interest from a fellow Israelite
- The punishment of death for a rebellious and defiant son
For these three commandments, not palatable to us 3000 years later, be assured that later post-biblical sages found merciful ways to curb or eliminate these unethical practices. Professor James Kugel suggests that specifying exactly the way someone should behave in a particular situation often has the effect of forcing an otherwise unrestrained person to submit to the law and consider their actions. In the case of the rebellious son, one should also take seriously what is written in the Torah at the end of this law, “Let all Israel hear and be fearful”—“all” here includes not only the rebellious son but his parents as well. In truth, there were sufficient conditions needed to convict a son of rebelliousness to lead the rabbis of the Talmud to assert: “There never was such a case and never will be one.”
If racḥamim, mercy and compassion, is, indeed, the theme of much of this week’s Torah reading, then its occurrence during the Hebrew month of Elul in so many of our penitential prayers which leads up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is not at all coincidental. During Elul, when we are asked to engage in a spiritual intimacy with ourselves and with the Divine, we might hear “Be merciful as I am merciful.”
Let’s all listen to Alden Solovy’s loving poem on this season of activating our deepest sense of compassion and mercy. It’s entitled
The Season of Healing
This is the season of healing:
Of healing our hearts and minds,
Of healing the moments we share with each other
And the moments we share with ourselves.
This is the season of memory:
Of remembering our parents and grandparents,
The love of generations,
The holiness of our ancestors.
This is the season of stillness,
The season of silence and quiet:
Of deep breaths,
Of open eyes,
Of compassion and consolation.
This is the season of healing:
The season of grief turning to wonder,
Of loss turning toward hope,
The season that binds this year to the next,
The season that frees this year from the next,
The season that heralds the redemption of spirit
And our return to God’s Holy Word.