Poems for the new year
This week's portion: 'God of Carnage' vacation

Relationship, work, and self (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah. Note that in the Reform world we're reading parashat Ki Tetze this week -- I think that other Jewish communities may be one portion ahead of us at the moment! But it'll all even out in the end.

A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone's life in pawn.

That line appears late in this week's portion, Ki Tetze. It arises seemingly out of context; the verse immediately preceding it talks about how a newly-wed man is exempt from military service, and the verse after it assigns death as a penalty for kidnappers. But it's possible to see a connection between these three: all center around the importance of an individual life, and the importance of treating a person's life with respect.

"When a man has taken a bride," reads verse five, "he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married." This relates back to last week's portion. A new marriage represents limitless potential, holy relationship beginning to form. It is incumbent on us to recognize that potential, and to honor it.

Then comes the verse forbidding the taking of a handmill or upper millstone in pawn. In antiquity, if a man borrowed money he would not offer specific collateral against the loan; rather, his property would become subject to possible seizure by the creditor should he default on his repayment. But the lender was forbidden to seize the items through which the borrower made his daily bread. (Other verses in this portion relate to this theme. In verses 12-13 we learn that if a creditor seizes a poor man's only blanket he must return it each night, and in verse 17 we learn that it is forbidden for a creditor to seize a widow's garment.) With a handmill and its companion millstone a man can turn inedible grain into bread. If a creditor seized a millstone, he would be implicitly dooming its owner to starvation; leaving the millstone, in contrast, allows the poor man both physical food and the spiritual sustenance of self-sufficiency.

"If a man is found to have kidnapped a fellow Israelite, enslaving him or selling him, that kidnapper shall die; thus you will sweep out evil from your midst," reads verse seven. The text presumes that the purpose of the kidnapping is not ransom, but selling a fellow member of the community into slavery. Denying a man his livelihood is forbidden, but denying his individual integrity is a far greater offense. Today we might choose to read the line about death as descriptive, rather than proscriptive; anyone who enslaves a fellow surely loses life inside, even if he continues outwardly to live and breathe. (Today we also might choose to expand the exhortation to include how we treat members of other communities, whose integrity we feel commanded to recognize, too.)

The throughline that connects these three verses is respect for our fellow beings, our "others," in their relationships, their livelihoods, and their selves. Even the ordering can hold meaning: relationships, at the heart of every interaction, come first. Then work, the way we earn our bread and make our mark on the world. And then, in a stunning case of last-but-not-least, personhood, the recognition of the whole and holy value of every other being with whom we interact.

This week's Torah portion calls us to mitzvat ha-borei, the mitzvah of our Creator: to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we move further into Elul, and its interior work of self-examination and exterior work of transforming relationships with other, self, and God, may these teachings give us insight into who we want to be in the year to come.