By Joel Gimpel
August 28, 2004
This week’s parshah, Ki Tetze, continues Moses’ second address to the Israelites. It includes 72 commandments, the greatest number of commandments of any Torah portion. They focus on everything from the treatment of female captives, defiant children, lost animals and the poor through laws of inheritance, apparel, money lending and fair weights and measures. This amalgam may seem random at times, but there is a guiding principle that reminds us not to be indifferent to other people and the world around us. The parshah was particularly interesting to me, as a retired attorney and aspiring candidate for public office. So in keeping with the political climate in this election year, I like to call the first section the “family values” parshah.
The first of the commandments tells us that if we capture a “woman of goodly form” in battle and wish to marry her, we must shave her head, cut her nails, provide new clothes, and wait one month before marrying her to allow her time to grieve for her parents. And, we cannot treat her as a slave.
The family values section goes on to tell us that if we have a stubborn and rebellious son, who remains incorrigible despite our best efforts, we can take him to the elders of the community who will stone him to death. Interestingly, no mention is made of what to do with a stubborn and rebellious daughter. I leave the reason for the omission to your imaginations. Some of our nation’s political candidates keep espousing family values. I wonder how they’d react to the commandment that we stone incorrigible sons.
In the next section, we’re told that we have to return lost property, no matter what it may be or how long ago we may have discovered it. In reading the commentaries on Ki Thetze I came across many stories dealing with this specific mitzvah.
One concerned a man who told his rabbi of a recurring nightmare he was having. He had found a wallet containing a fortune, and when he couldn’t find the owner he kept the money, and with it became even wealthier than he could have imagined. In his nightmare the man to whom the money had originally belonged became destitute and had to beg in the streets. He died leaving his wife and children in poverty so that his children could not even afford an education.
The rabbi told him to find the man who had originally owned the money and to share the wealth he had accumulated. Once he did so, the man’s nightmares ceased.
In all of the stories there is an underlying assumption that there is someone who is the “rightful” owner and someone else who is simply a “proxy” or “temporary” owner who must eventually relinquish not only the original property, but all or part of what had accumulated.
So we learn that we must care for others as well as for ourselves; we have no right to profit from the misfortune, negligence or forgetfulness of others. This is part of creating a caring society, just as much as the laws that protect the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger that we also find in Ki Thetze.
I believe, however, that there is another underlying assumption that should be questioned -though I cannot propose a definitive answer.
In Psalm 24 we’re told “the world belongs to God in all its fullness, the earth and all who dwell on it….” In other words, everything on this earth belongs to Hashem. Nothing is truly owned by any human being. We can find an extension of this in one of the central teaching of Buddhism. Nothing in life is permanent; everything is temporary and ephemeral. We must rejoice in what we have at the moment because we do not know if it will be “ours” the next moment, if indeed it ever was “ours.”
We spend so much of our lives focusing on acquiring things, whether money, property, books, music, or electronic gadgets, that we often forget to enjoy what and who is in front of us at any given moment. In the story above there was an assumption that something belonged to someone and therefore needed to be returned. And yet there was also an assumption that nothing truly belonged to anyone, or else the “finder” would have dared to profit at all or to keep – or return – any of what he had amassed.
The story brings to light an essential paradox in life with which we must struggle. Given the nature of society as it has developed we must realistically focus on “ownership,” and yet if we look at the grand scheme we really don’t own anything. We should never lose track of the fact that everything is temporary and ownerless, from a human perspective, yet eternal and proprietary from Hashem’s perspective. We must learn how to enjoy what we have and who is with us in this very moment while knowing deep down that in the next moment, everything may change.
We must participate in life with all our heart, all our soul and all our might so that we can experience that joy. We’ll experience the next moment when it arrives.
The parshah also tells us how to conduct business, a lesson that has apparently escaped some in our society, given recent scandals. We must keep honest weights and measures, and not charge interest on personal loans to persons in need.
Once, during the high holy season, a rabbi paused during the service, looked at his congregation, and said:” What a funny world it is that we live in these days. There was a time, you know, when Jews would be scrupulously honest in the market place and be the most outrageous liars in the synagogue. These days, however, everything is reversed. The Jews are surprisingly honest in synagogue, but in the streets and market places, I’m ashamed to tell you.”
The congregation asked: “How can it be bad if Jews are telling the truth in synagogue?”
The rabbi answered, saying that in the past, Jews were known for their honesty. “They took the words of Torah seriously. Their ‘yes’ was always a ‘yes’ and their ‘no’ was always a ‘no’. They had honest weights and fair measures. Yet, on the Days of Awe they would fervently recite the confessional prayers declaring that they had lied, cheated, swindled and dealt dishonestly. This was a lie. Everyone knew that truth and faithfulness were the lamps lighting their way.
“But these days, the reverse takes place. In the streets and in the market place, the world of commerce and social interaction, they lie and cheat, but when they come to synagogue, they, sadly, profess the truth.”
So let us, as we approach the high holy days, resolve that we’ll lie in the synagogue.
Joel E. Gimpel
August 28, 2004