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Progressive Principles in the Parasha

08/28/2020 02:56:03 PM

Aug28

            Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ki Teitzei, which includes many commandments that may seem problematic for our modern sensitivities, but were actually incredibly revolutionary for their time. Commenting on an earlier part of Deuteronomy, Nachmanides says, “It is impossible to mention in the Torah all human conduct with neighbors and friends, all business transactions, all the institutions of community and all of the nations. Rather, after having mentioned a number of them, such as ‘Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood’ (Lev. 19:16), and others like them, [Torah] goes back to say in a general way that one should do the good and the straight in all matters.”

            In this parashah, we see commandments regarding slavery and war crimes that still seem to accept the inevitability of such evil institutions, while creating barriers to them. One might ask, if the Torah is inclined to offer freedom to fugitive slaves from other nations who flee to the Holy Land, why not outlaw slavery entirely? If the Torah is concerned with treating captives of war humanely, why allow capturing civilians in war at all? Rabbi Shai Held writes in his modern commentary, “The Heart of Torah,” that “society’s laws are not a perfect encapsulation of its moral ideas.” We all know that legality should not be our standard of morality, as plenty of things in history were legally and officially sanctioned despite their immorality (such as slavery). Yet, we should strive to create laws that reflect our highest ethical values.

            The trouble is, sometimes different sectors of society do not agree on what the highest ethical value is, or how to achieve it. It becomes necessary on occasion to make compromises or settle for reforms to urge the rest of society forward. In the Ancient Near East, most countries mandated extradition of fugitive slaves. It is entirely possible that among Israelites, despite being a recently freed people themselves, there were those who saw themselves entitled to now own slaves as well, to be like the nations that surrounded them. Perhaps, that was part of how they envisioned true freedom. For the Torah to advocate for freedom and equality would really shake things up. Legislation to help regulate the worst of human inclination would have been a radical progressive act.

            The thing with progress, though is that it never ceases. The Torah held ancient Israelites to a higher standard than their neighbors and set the tone for what became Jewish ethics of freedom, equality, acts of lovingkindess, justice, righteous giving, labor regulations, care for the earth and animals, and so much more. In each generation there will be those who recognize an area of repairing the world that is still lacking, a community still left behind, a practice still contributing to the destruction of the climate. Those are our prophets, reminding us to the call to do what is good and straight in all matters, continuing the Torah’s trend toward justice, love, acceptance and progression toward ever higher ethical values.

            May we always do what is good and straight, even when it is difficult and new, and may we continue to push for dignity and freedom for all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781