Ki Tetzei: whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behaviour to others

The sidra of Ki Tetzei contains, according to Maimonides, 72 of the fabled 613 commandments in the Torah – on first reading the effect is of an enormous list of apparently haphazard rules ranging from family relationships to the treatment of a judicially executed corpse. From care for animals to cultic prostitution; from financial probity to cloth made from a mixture of wool and linen.

Throughout history Jewish scholars have tried to explain the unified theory of mitzvot; rather like with the laws of physics there is the sense that somehow there is an elegant rationale that, once found, will enlighten us about the world and its meaning. The best try (in my view) is that of Rabbi Pinchas b Hama who wrote (Devarim Rabbah 6:3) that “Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof. When you make a door write the commandments on the doorposts; when you put on new garments consider from what they are made; when you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, leave it for the widow, orphaned and the stranger, the vulnerable in your society”

In other words, every aspect of our daily life can be made holy through following these mitzvot – the mundane can be raised to the exceptional, the quality of our lives infinitely changed in these tiny regular incremental actions.

Many years ago studying with Rabbi Hugo Gryn zl I learned about the Shema, the prayer recited morning and evening of each day, for many people the defining prayer of Judaism. It speaks in the first line of the unity of God, and of the relationship of God and Jews. But before it does it demands something else of us – Shema – listen! Pay attention! Hear what is really important!

The first command in the prayer is to love God completely – with heart, spirit and physical strength. Then we are told that God’s commandments should be with us always, spoken of repeatedly to our children, talked about when we sit in our home, when we are walking outside, when we lie down, when we get up. They are to be written upon our doorposts so that going in and out of our homes we see and are reminded of the requirements of God. And in the Shema too we are told “ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, v’hayu l’totafot beyn eynecha” you shall hold fast to them as a sign upon your hands and they will be (reminders) before your eyes. The line has been understood to be the source of the practise of placing tefillin – small leather boxes containing some prayers – on the head and hand during the weekday morning prayer as an aid to remembering, but Rabbi Gryn had a different view – he understood it to say “in everything your hand touches and everything your eye sees you must respond to the requirements of God.”

If we really fulfil the commandment of ‘Shema’, then no part of our life is exempt from the dictates of holiness. We cannot be pious in the synagogue but not at home or at work. We cannot care about the humanity of the people we like but not that of those we dislike or disagree with. We cannot do the technical bare minimum to fulfil our obligations to society and consider our job well done. As another part of this sidra says – lo tuchal le’hitalem– You are not able to/ must not remain indifferent.

In this sidra too is the commandment to wear tzitzit – the knotted threads on the edges of some garments, most usually seen today on the tallit, which are the physical reminders that we have regular and routine obligations as Jews. Our obligation to love God is played out in our world – how we relate to others, how we care for the vulnerable, how we manage risk, how we nurture good values. The traditional unified theory of mitzvot is based on an unquestioned acceptance of the Metzaveh – the One who commands – that is God. In today’s world that understanding does not work so well – there are many who find such faith impossible or even undesirable. And yet the value of the system of mitzvot remains powerful – Judaism has never asked what you believe, but demands that you behave according to its belief. Lack of faith in God is no excuse for lack of proper behaviour towards others.

parashat vayetzei

Vayetzei 

Every so often someone asks about the word “mizpah”, found in this sidra, because it appears on a piece of jewellery sold in a national chain of shops.

When the sidra Vayetzei begins, Jacob is effectively running for his life, leaving home and family in Beer Sheba, and going towards unknown relations in Haran.  A frightened and homesick young man, uncertain of what the future will bring, he stops alone by a roadside at night and dreams the dream which is to sustain him throughout his life – he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven to earth, and there on that ladder he encounters God.  By the time the sidra ends, much of the trickery which caused him to leave home will have been reflected into his own life – his father in law will have deceived him with his bride (the mirror image of his own deceiving of his father), the older will not be passed over for the younger (as was done when he took the blessing meant for his older brother.)    After 20 years Jacob is returning home a wealthy and confident man, no longer alone but with a substantial entourage, and of course also as a husband and father.  Relations with his father in law have been marked by abuse and mistrust, and at the end of the sidra Jacob makes good his escape, only to be chased by Laban who is searching for the stolen household gods, and who doesn’t want this young kinsman to leave and take with him both family and family wealth.  The two make a pact finally, neither of them happy about the other but both unable to do anything further about it.  The pact is marked by a mound of stones, named in both the Hebrew of  Jacob (Galeid)  and the Aramaic of Laban (y’gar sahadoota) ,  and then it is suddenly named again ‘Mitzpah’, because Laban  said  “May the Eternal watch between you and me when we are out of sight of each other,  if you ill- treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters  – though no one else be about, remember the Eternal God will be a witness between you and me” (31:49).

Mitzpah then is not a blessing but a warning.  Far from being a token designating eternal love, it is more a sort of token of eternal mistrust.  Yet there it is to be found on the pages of well known catalogue store under the rubric  “His and Hers split pendant set”, along with other split pendants with such inscriptions as “Our Hearts beat as One”, and even the famous speech of Ruth to Naomi “where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God”.

One wonders what the designers of this jewellery, and also the many people who actually buy it would think, if they realised that the apparently romantic message in fact is a barely coded warning between two known tricksters that whatever they do, even in secret when no one is around to observe them, the truth will be known to God, who will most certainly judge them.

The whole business set me wondering about the things we wear to remind us of what is important to us.

Traditionally Jews wear  certain things to remind us of the biblical commandments – tefillin in the daily morning service which contain paragraphs from bible reminding us of the obligation to love God and to teach our children to do so too;  or tallit with the corner fringes knotted to remind us of the 613 commandments said to be in Torah, many of which deal with how to behave towards others –  but even these reminders can become habitual so that we don’t really think of the meaning of these commandments which are designed to shape our behaviour to be holy – to behave against our own selfish needs or interests in favour of Imagebettering our world, developing creation along with God. We could do though with something to jolt us out of our daily existence, something to remind us that God is there in everything we do and everything we see.  The traditional system of blessings said before we do any action has much to commend it, the whole system of time bound mitzvot marking our days and our weeks, of shabbatot and festivals, they are all designed as ‘signs’ to remind us of our partnership with the Creator and our responsibilities to God, but few of us today have the kind of lives which would make all these signs meaningful.  Thinking about it, maybe we should all buy one of those pendants which say MIZPAH, not as a declaration of love for another, but to remind ourselves that all the twists and turns of our lives, all our petty temptations and deceits and actions and inactions, they may all be hidden from our fellow human beings, but will never be hidden from God, who will ultimately judge us.  Everything we say and everything we do, at home or outside, whatever time of day – we should do in the certain knowledge and fear that it will not be forgotten.  That would certainly add a different dimension to our lives!