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9.1.2017 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2017 7:47 pm
by RabbiMark
The news has been particularly hard for me to read this week. The wrenching stories and devastating images emerging the wake of Hurricane Harvey have led me to shy away from anything more than a cursory glimpse at what’s happening. It feels too overwhelming; there’s too much to handle - what am I going to do about all this anyway?

In verses that lay the groundwork for pages of rabbinic interpretations out of this week’s parsha, the Torah offers guidelines regarding how to deal with lost objects: “You shall not see the ox or sheep of your brother go astray and hide from them - you shall surely return them to him. If your brother is not close to you, or you don’t know him, then you shall bring the animal into your house, and it shall be with you until he seeks it out, and you shall return it to him. You shall also do so with his donkey, and with his garment, and indeed with any lost object of your brother’s which he has lost and you have found - you cannot hide yourself.” (Deut. 22:1-3)

These verses raise a number of questions (how long do you have to keep the object? how can you not know your brother?), but the most obvious one to me is, why do we need all three verses?

When someone you’re connected to loses something, you gotta hold on to it - one verse, simple. Our tradition teaches, however, that each verse is in the Torah for a reason, so there must be more to this than simply sloppy editing.

Alsheikh, a prominent 16th century Torah commentator, brings these verses together into a meaningful construct. He explains that the verses build upon each other, first with a relatively narrow example (specific animals, with the person close by), then a more expansive one (the same animals, but he’s farther away), and finally, into a wide-ranging category of care-taking (any lost object, however far away the owner is). The last phrase then, from Alsheikh, is not proscriptive, but descriptive; it’s not that you shouldn’t hide yourself, it’s that you will be unable to hide yourself from these situations once you have built up your practice of returning lost objects with attention and care.

This construct can, of course, be applied more broadly than in the specific context of missing livestock. The actions that we take condition within us a particular way of living in the world. It’s obvious that taking the next right action doesn’t come naturally to us; as Alshikh himself wrote, “What person would ordinarily leave his own private affairs to go running after his fellow’s stray ox and restore it to him?” And yet, we have obligations to each other and to our selves. Therefore, we need guidelines for how to bring about the response that’s so desperately needed.

The word translated above as “hide” can also be read as “turning one’s self away.” Upon further examination, I found that this particular verb is extremely rare in the Tanakh, appearing only a handful of times. One of its few other occurrences is in Isaiah (58:7): “Should you not give bread to the hungry, bring the outcast poor into your house, cover the naked when you see him, and not turn (yourself) away from your own kin?” Echoing Alsheikh’s teaching, a number of specific actions culminate in this concept of not turning our selves away. Isaiah gives us something additional, however, laying out a potential outcome in the next verse, that “then your light shall break forth as the dawn, and healing shall spring up quickly.”

I need these verses this week. These verbs, from Deuteronomy and Isaiah, call out to me to turn myself toward, rather than away from, those in need, to experience the discomfort and unease I need to feel deeply in order to be compelled to take action. These verses hold out to me a simple path - don’t do everything at once. Take simple actions. Donate to relief efforts. Give blood. Send clothes or food. By taking simple actions, the light I have within me - that each of us has within us - breaks forth, which in turn brings about healing, for us and for others.

May our actions cultivate an inability to turn our selves away from those who need us.

May we always remember that we have light to share, that we always have an obligation to transform that light into healing.

May we, as individuals and as a community, take action to do whatever we can to restore what has been lost - physically and spiritually - by the victims of this hurricane, bringing about greater safety, health, hope, and faith.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Matt