This week’s Torah reading contains more commandments (72) than any other of the 54 weekly Torah portions. Moreover, the breadth of the mitzvot, which deal with civil, criminal, ritual, and moral law, makes this portion truly unique. Some of these laws – such as shatnez, the prohibition against wearing a garment made of a mixture of wool and linen – seem arbitrary, while others – such as the laws prohibiting the charging of interest – were constructively emended and amended during biblical times so that a just but effective commercial legal system could be established.
I believe that the overriding message of this Torah portion is the application of the poetic moral command found at the beginning of last week’s Torah reading, where in Deuteronomy 16 we were taught: Tzedek tzedek tirdof! Justice, justice, you shall pursue! Ki Tetze comes to teach us that the command to act with tzedek – with justice, with tzedakah, and with charity – applies in every possible human interaction, equally to intimate relations with our spouses and to our interactions with strangers.
As you and I begin to focus our attention upon the High Holy Days, and the task of taking an accounting of our actions, I would like to ask us all to pay special attention to the Jewish responsibilities toward the “stranger,” as stated in chapter 24, verses 10-22, and to the absolute demand for commercial honesty, found in chapter 25, verses 13-16.
In 24:10-22, we are told to respect the dignity of our neighbor, even if he owes us money; and to respect the rights of our employees to their wages. We are further told regarding the strangers in our midst that, like the fatherless and the widow, they are entitled to a form of affirmative tzedaka, in that we have to be assertive in assuring that their basic needs, for food and clothing, are met.
In 25:13-16, in a passage made to stand out in the Torah scroll by the white spaces of the parchment that bracket it, we are told:
“You (singular) shall not have in your pouch alternative weights and measures, larger and smaller. You (singular) shall not have in your house alternate weights and measures, a larger and a smaller. You (singular) must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you (plural) are to long endure on the land that Adonai your God is giving to you (singular). For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to Adonai your God.”
The headlines of the recent past, from the kashrut scandal in Iowa to the recent FBI raid on the Jewish community in Deal to the financial crises that Bernie Madoff symbolizes, lead me to suggest that all of us this Rosh HaShanah ought to be asking ourselves and each other the Ed Koch question: How’m I doin’?
How’m I doin’ in translating the Jewish values I proclaim to hold dear to my everyday interactions with my neighbors and with strangers?
How’m I doin’ in terms of helping the needy in my own community?
How’m I doin’ in living by the absolute demand for honesty in my business practices that Deuteronomy 25 gives us no wiggle room to escape?
Finally, how does what I do or don’t do impact upon how others view my family and my people?
While in verse 24:16, the Torah tells us that parents and children should not be held accountable for the transgressions of the other, we all know that human nature leads people to stereotype and to generalize to groups the actions of individuals.
I am a proud and partisan Jew. I believe that the great gift of the Jewish people to human civilization is a moral and ethical code to which we hold ourselves accountable. Judaism is a path of living that recognizes that no one can respond to the Ed Koch question with an absolute answer. None of us lived a perfect life this past year, or even this past week or day. We are all imperfect people living in an imperfect world. What we can seek from Ki Tetze, when we go forth into the new year two weeks from today, is to do better. What we can do is recognize that perhaps the reason that the text in Deuteronomy 25 goes back and forth between the second person singular and plural is that what I do or don’t do affects all of us; and that what we as a community do or don’t do affects each of us.
The scandals of this past year serve as a reminder to each of us that our responsibilities to God demand that we apply the ethics of Judaism to all of our interpersonal activities and to every aspect of our lives. As we approach the year 5770 may our individual and communal goal be that when Rosh HaShanah 5771 rolls around, our answer to the How’m I doin’ question, as it applies to our upholding of Jewish ethical and moral law and as it pertains to how each us has treated our neighbors, will be better than last year.