D'varling for Ki Tetze: Who Do We Choose to Be?
September 09, 2022
If you look up at the sky this weekend, you might notice that the moon is becoming full. This weekend brings the middle of Elul – the final month of the old year; the month that leads us to the Days of Awe. During this month, our mystics say, “The King is in the Field.”
Here’s the metaphor: imagine that God is a King who lives in a vast and distant palace. Unreachable! So far away! Probably guarded by armies of angels! We’d never get an audience with such a sovereign. But this month, the King is in the field. God leaves that palace and walks with us in the meadow. During Elul, God is right here with us, so close we could almost reach out and touch. “The King is in the field” means that God is completely accessible to us. If we open our hearts, we might feel God’s presence, ready to hear whatever we need to say.
Of course, I believe that God is always accessible to us – that we can pray whenever and wherever and however we need to, and we will be heard, even if we don’t get an answer. But I love the idea that during this last month of the old year, God is extra available. We might even say, “Whoa: God is in this place!” Because every place can be a place of holiness, and justice, and love, a place where we connect with something beyond ourselves. Except we’re human and we keep forgetting. And then we remember again.
Elul is when many of us start thinking about teshuvah again. Teshuvah literally means either “answer,” or “turning around.” Often it’s translated as repentance or return. Teshuvah can be a year-round practice: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again. We can do that all the time. Regardless, that work intensifies now, as the holidays approach.
If teshuvah is an answer, what’s the question? I think the question is very simple: who do we choose to be?
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.” He lived in the 5th century BCE, around the same time that the Torah was written down in its final form.
He said we become what we choose, what we think, and what we do. My teacher Reb Zalman z”l did say “the mind is like tofu: it takes on the flavor of whatever you marinate it in.” Our thoughts definitely can impact us. Then again, Judaism doesn’t generally treat thoughts as sins. We’re much more concerned with choices and actions – and their impacts.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of mitzvot – commandments. Some of them cry out to be reinterpreted, like the instructions for how to “marry” a captive in wartime. Others still ring clear. Here are four that jumped out at me this week:
Don’t abuse someone who works for you. (Deut. 24:14)
Don’t subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. (Deut. 24:17)
Leave the gleanings of the fields for the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan -- in other words, those at most risk of harm. (Deut. 24:19)
Always remember the story of our enslavement and then our liberation – and let that ancestral memory fuel how we treat others. (Deut. 24:22)
What would it look like to live up to these mitzvot? Not abusing our workers. Not subverting or abusing the rights of the vulnerable. Feeding the hungry. Remembering that the Jewish people has known hardship before, and therefore it’s on us to help those who are now in tight straits. Honestly, it sounds like a recipe for a pretty great society, if we can pull it off!
Who do we choose to be? I hope we will choose to be people who do teshuvah: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again… and then, from that place of inner transformation, doing what we can to bring repair.
This is the d'varling I gave at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)