Ki Tetzei: Mixed Messages

Treat your captive bride with care
yet stone your wayward son;
hang a felon from a tree,
then bury his remains.

Raise your neighbour’s fallen ass
yet stone a fallen girl;
drive the mother bird away
before you take her young.

Do not sow your vineyard
with a second kind of seed;
the donkey with the mighty ox
yoke not before the plough.

Keep the maimed and misborn
from the presence of the Lord;
yet hate not the Egyptian:
you were strangers in his land.

Charge no interest from your kin
who ask you for a loan;
keep the vows you made to God
or suffer from His wrath.

Build a railing on your roof
so nobody will fall;
release the husband, newly-wed,
from fighting in the war.

Rob not the beggared debtor
of the means to earn his keep,
wait patiently outside his house
until he cedes his pledge.

Pay the pauper’s salary
before the sun goes down;
leave forgotten gleanings
for the needy to collect.

The guilty, flog, but count each lash
to limit his disgrace;
and when your ox is threshing,
let it graze upon the grain.

The woman who protects her man
by grabbing at his foe:
have no mercy on her plight
but amputate her hand.

Have honest weights and measures
in your pouch and in your home;
perpetuate the dead man’s name;
and Amalek’s name – erase!

Parashat Ki Tetze contains a diverse collection of mitzvot – the most in any parasha – 74 in all, according to the Sefer HaChinuch. There are commandments that are exquisitely compassionate (the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS says: “One theme is certainly very prominent in this parasha, which is the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being, even the most marginal members of society, such as the criminal or the female war captive…”). But side by side are laws which at best are anachronistic and at worst seem barbaric.
In an article on Ki Tetse from 2007 from the website of Limmud On One Leg, Rabbi Gershon Winkler notes, “This portion of our Torah is a continuation of a seemingly endless stream of instructions that appear quite paradoxical, and at best utterly confounding. They run from compassionate laws around the treatment of laborers to crude consequences for adulterous affairs. In the same breath that we are told to not muzzle our oxen while plowing our fields, we are told to stone to death hopelessly rebellious adolescents. And so it goes, on and on.”
Rabbi Winkler wonders how we are to understand this “unpredictable, inconsistent aspect of our holy Torah, about which it is said: “Her ways are ways of peace, and all of her roads are roads of pleasantness.” (Mishlei 3:17). Granted, that many of these instructions were monumental breakthroughs for 1300 B.C.E. ‘Until the nineteenth century,’ wrote historian Cecil Roth, ‘cruelty to animals was nowhere illegal, except in Jewish law’. (The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, pp. 343f). And while the highly-lauded ancient Hammurabi Code prescribed death to anyone who harbored a runaway slave, the equally ancient Hebrew Code commands to the contrary: ‘You shall not surrender to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you’ (Devarim 23:16-17).”
But, asks Rabbi Winkler, “What about the other stuff? How do we reconcile our seemingly compassionate Torah and all of its super-humane sensitivities with the seeming crude injunctions that also fill its folios?”
He suggests that perhaps the answer lies in the injunction about sending off the mother bird before snatching her young from the nest (Devarim 22:6). He compares the view of the Rambam who explains the law as a way of teaching us to feel compassion, that animals, too, have feelings (Mo’rah Ne’vuchim, Ch. 3), and the Ramban who explains it as a way of teaching us to be compassionate (Ramban on Devarim 22:6). Rabbi Winkler deems this a significant difference. He says, “Compassion… is a nice thing to feel. But more challenging is the practice of being compassionate, of acting with compassion in all situations, not only the ones that make us feel merciful because we can “empathize” or it touches a “soft spot”, but even those situations where there is little or no room or no time for empathy or soft spots – to act with compassion even then.”
Rabbi Winkler continues, “The Torah is not interested in teaching you to feel compassion, but rather how to live compassionately. Feelings are situational, subjective, personal, and contingent upon individual whims and judgments. Moreover, we don’t need divine revelation to instruct us to feel what we are naturally inclined to feel. What we do need divine revelation to teach us is how to draw upon our feelings and apply them beyond our subjective selves toward a higher calling, in response to a higher will. That is the mixed message of our Torah. Can you act with severity when necessary without losing your compassion? Can you flog someone who has been sentenced to be flogged, without losing sight of his dignity? (Devarim 25:3). Can you execute a murderer and act compassionately toward his corpse ?(Devarim 21:23) Can you stigmatize compassionately? The ancient rabbis modeled this when they taught that the order of calling people up to the Torah during worship, is: “Ko’hain, Levite, Israelite. But if the choice is an ignorant Ko’hain or a learned mamzer [the offspring of an incestuous or adulterous relationship], the learned mamzer takes precedence!” (Talmud Bavli, Ho’ra’yot 13a). Can you hold both, the disqualification and the virtue? Can you act with severity while maintaining your compassion? And vice-versa? Can you love your child and say No? As the 2nd-century Rabbi El’azar warned: “One who acts compassionately in a situation requiring severity will in the end act with severity in a situation deserving of compassion” (Midrash Tanchuma, Metso’ra, Ch. 1).”
Rabbi Winkler concludes, “In other words: Can you dance in the Grey? Or can you only thrive in the black-and-white? Can you frolic in the chasm of paradox or can you only play in the safe realm of either/or? That is the challenge. As Solomon put it some 2900 years ago: “It is a good thing if you can hold on to both [opposites] without releasing your grip on either.” (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] 7:15-18).

In an article entitled, Engage all Texts, on last week’s parasha, Shofetim, Daniel Septimus says the following, “We are all aware that when we turn to Jewish tradition for teachings that inspire us to work for social justice, we often turn a blind eye to texts that can inspire the opposite: religious paternalism, inequality, brutal forms of capital punishment, and yes, even race-based genocide.
But is this okay? Can we credibly cite Jewish teachings that encourage a better world when there exist parallel teachings that could lead to a worse one? I think yes, but only with these conditions: that we are honest about which texts we are excluding from active duty and that we study not only those traditions that promote our social agendas, but those that contradict it–because neglected texts left unattended have a nasty way of coming back to life in more virulent forms…Scattered amongst Judaism’s most noble and righteous teachings are passages that are anachronistic at best and immoral at worst. We must identify these teachings–biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern. As we engage texts that inspire us to pursue social justice, we must, at the same time, engage those that can inspire violence and oppression.”

It is mandatory, of course, to read the biblical text with the exegesis that accompanies it, so that we very often find that the sages mitigate the harshness of many of the laws and frequently interpret them in metaphorical ways.


Shofetim: Unseeing eyes

If …someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them…and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Devarim 21: 1-9)

In the nearby city
children caper joyously
underneath acacia trees
shaded from the sun.

In the distant pasture,
crushing uncut grass
lies a figure, prone and still
beneath the burning rays.

A pall of horror falls,
darkness shrouds the town,
heads are bowed, eyes are dull,
the children’s voices hushed.

By the barren wadi
the untried heifer’s blood
trickles past the rocks
and flows into the stream.

The city elders, troubled,
solemnly proclaim,
“Our hands are free of blood
we did not see the crime.”

Yet contrition fills their heart
for the one they did not save
for the care that was not offered
for the life that was curtailed.

The rite of the beheaded heifer (eglah arufah) concludes the Parasha of Shofetim which largely encompasses the establishment of a judicial system.

Rashi explains the symbolism of this rite: it involves a decapitating a heifer which is in its first year of life and has not yet yielded any fruit either by giving birth or by working.  This calf represents the individual whose death severed his ability to bear fruit. It is killed in an unworked field which represents the fact that no-one from that town was aware of the murder and the steps necessary to prevent it were not taken.

The Rambam suggests that this ritual was so rarely performed that it became a much-discussed public spectacle in the town. There would be a high likelihood that the murderer emanated from the town closest to the murder scene and due to this level of involvement from the citizens the murderer might soon be discovered because someone would emerge who knew something about it. “Furthermore since the place where the neck of the calf is broken can never be cultivated after the cow is killed there, it will remain uncultivated forever, and the owner of the field and his family and friends will thus do everything possible to discover the murderer to prevent the eglah arufah ritual from recurring.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3)

The Ramban regards it as a “chok” – a law like that of the red heifer, the meaning of which we do not undestand.

The Gemara (Sotah 38b) elaborates on the hidden meaning: R’ Yehoshua ben Levi says: the eglah arufah only comes on account of inhospitability, as it says, “They shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood…” Would we have thought that the elders of the court are murderers [that they need to declare their innocence]? Rather, [what they are saying is]: “He did not come to us that we left him without food, he did not come to us for us to leave him without escort.” (In the Sifri only “escorting” is mentioned).
So the leaders seem to be declaring that they did whatever they could to treat the victim properly while he was passing through their town (or that they were unaware of his presence – both the Gemara and the Sifri could be read either way).

In a commentary on this ritual,, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom recalls a teaching he learned from Rabbi Yoel Sperka, “What does the hospitality have to do with homicide? Why would a declaration stating that “We did not kill this man” imply anything about the way the elders (or townspeople) treated him?”
Rabbi Etshalom elaborates in the name of Rabbi Sperka, that a stranger who comes to town and is ignored, not offered hospitality nor escorted when he leaves, is unlikely to feel uplifted and emotionally buoyant. He will be more likely to be easy prey if he is set upon by a thug who stalks him outside the city. On the other hand, someone who comes to town and is vied over by the townsfolk who wish to host him, is begged to stay longer and finally escorted to the edge of town is likely to feel more emotionally robust and put up more of a fight against a would-be attacker. Rabbi Etshalom continues, “This is what the elders are declaring: If we saw this man, we did everything possible to enhance and maintain his sense of self-worth, such that any chance he had of defending himself was enhanced by his visit through our town.
“(If, as the second half of the declaration implies, they did not see him, then they certainly did as much as they could…)”

Nechama Leibowitz devotes a chapter in her book Studies in Devarim to this rite. She first cites the 15th-century Portuguese Jewish philosopher Abravanel (1437-1508) who asks what is the significance of this strange ritual – if the aim was to cleanse the innocent blood – how did the blood of the beheaded heifer atone for that of the victim; and if the Israelites had not committed the sin, why did they need the ritual? Nechama Leibowitz does not find  support in the text for the Rambam’s theory that it might aid in detecting the murderer. She says that most commentators argue that the rite was intended to shock the local inhabitants, “We know too well the indifference that prevails among people regarding the miseries of others. Anyone hearing of a murder, either then or now, would shake his head, go his own way and the world would continue as before.”

In a commentary on Parashat Shofetim, from 2011, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser notes that on average, more than thirty people are murdered every day in the United States. He continues, “When most of us hear statistics like this, we think about the role of poverty and guns in creating a climate for homicide. We may think about the frequency with which racial minorities are the perpetrators and the victims of these murders. But we don’t often think about our own culpability.
“What would happen if we had to make the declaration of the cow with the broken neck described in this week’s Torah portion? What if, every time you read about a homicide in your town or an adjacent area, you had to travel to the scene of the murder and declare that you had no opportunity to offer the victim food, to care for him or her, or to offer protection from harm? Could you do it? Could any of us?
“…the Torah has no particular interest in the rights of an individual, but it has a very keen interest in a person’s obligations. The Torah offers us no right to remain uninterested in murders committed in the places near where we live. By the very fact that we do live in the place, we already are implicated. We are obliged to protect from harm even the stranger who is passing through.”

In Jerusalem in 2012 the Tzohar association of rabbis conducted a modernized version the ritual of the decapacitated calf. A minyan of ten rabbis from Tzohar gathered on highway 66 at the site of a hit-and-run incident in which female soldier Amnesh Yasatzu was killed. According to the police, Yasatzu was hit by a number of cars close to Kibbutz Hazorea in the western Jezreel Valley before she died.
Led by Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav, the ceremony was conducted in protest against the “moral injustice” of hit-and-run incidents, and as a call to drivers to exercise greater caution on the roads.
Tzohar said in a statement that it conducted the ritual (without the decapitated calf), “to arouse the attention of communal leaders and the hearts of the public, because there should not be a situation in which blood is haphazardly spilt and the public does not perform any act of remorse.”
“The Torah presents an uncompromising moral statement, that all of us, religious, traditional and secular, have to adopt: We are responsible for spilt blood,” Rabbi Stav said. “We are responsible for blood spilt in road accidents, we are responsible for blood spilt in stupid gang fights, for women murdered by their husbands, and for the blood spilt in the murders which fill the pages of our newspapers.”
Rabbi Stav continued that we must not shirk responsibility when it comes to human life and professing ignorance about a potential life-threatening situation is a form of guilt. The purpose of the ritual then as now was to interrupt the routine of everyday life and force those watching and passing by to think about and take responsibility for a situation in which a society can allow a person’s death to go unpunished and unnoticed.

In an article from the blog Times of Israel entitled The Eglah Arufah and Modern Police Work: The View of Jewish Police Chaplain, Rabbi Rigoberto Vinas (the chaplain) discusses various commentators’ views on the meaning of the ritual. He says, “The best explanation I have ever received for this ritual actually came from a Detective – a member of the Yonkers Police Department, where I serve as Police Chaplain. I came into the office and he and another officer were busy planning a candlelight vigil to take place in front of the home of a homicide victim. He was on the phone with family members, community leaders and others to attend this event. I remarked to him that it must be difficult solving a murder when you become so personally involved in a case that you would want to organize a memorial service for the victim. I asked him why he did this, wasn’t he supposed to concentrate on solving the murder. The detective explained that in the many years that he was involved in homicide he had noticed that this type of service opens the hearts of potential witnesses who had seen the crime, and promotes their cooperation when they see the victim’s family asking for help. He also said that sometimes the murderer attends the event and this helps to identify potential suspects. “So in a very direct way the candlelight vigil is a very much a part of solving the crime,” he explained. I realized that this is in fact the modern version of the eglah arufah and explained to him the biblical source for what he was engaged in. To this day, I am beholden to this detective for explaining to me a biblical ritual which at first glance appears to be obsolete but is in fact a very important and modern part of police work.
Rabbi Vinas notes the apathy of today’s society, “Murders go on daily and we are no longer shocked or up at arms. “Don’t get involved” either directly or even emotionally seems to be the order of the day. In this ritual, the Torah describes a society where the citizens of that town have stopped their daily routines to participate in a ritual that perhaps they do not even understand. (Ramban) But react they must. Even if it has the most remote chance of bringing the murderer to light (Rambam) they do everything they can to stop it. Their reaction to the death of that innocent is not a cold calculated reaction, rather they try to recreate what happened to stir up their own feelings even more and to mourn the loss of that individual. (Rashi).
“The Torah’s path is a path of compassion and connection not coldness and separation. Even at the cost of feeling other’s pain we seek it out so that we may continue the connectedness of society. In today’s “advanced culture” which is really primitive compared to the culture outlined in this ritual, we tell each other that we cannot feel others pain either because it wouldn’t help anyways or because it would be too overwhelming for us. But perhaps if we did begin feeling others’ pain we could highly diminish it so that it would be a rarity.”

And finally, in a lengthy article on the eglah arufah in the Jewish Journal, entitled Strangers, Immigrants and the Eglah Arufah
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz addresses the plight of the “outsider” of our day, the immigrant, and relates to economic immigrants who attempt to cross borders into neighboring countries and are sometimes killed while doing so. He suggests that the Jewish response to vulnerability of undocumented immigrants might incorporate the ethos of the eglah arufa.
He notes that the 16th-century Jewish thinker, the Maharal of Prague, suggests that the poor wanderer was hungry and was killed while trying to steal food. Even though the victim died while committing an illegal act, the leaders who failed to feed him are responsible. Rabbi Yanklowitz says “Just as the wanderer who was commemorated through the eglah arufah broke the law, so too undocumented immigrants today break the law. Nevertheless, the leaders who turn a blind eye to their needs are responsible for their suffering. In the case in Deuteronomy, the individual was guilty of theft, a sin condemned very strongly by Jewish law. Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “We assume that the person was starving and attempted an armed robbery in order to obtain food” (Ahron Soloveichik, Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind (Jersualem 1991), 175). This is all the more true with someone crossing international borders without documentation which is not an act condemned by Jewish law, and although we are bound by the law of the land, there is no reason why we should take less responsibility than in the case of the eglah arufah.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz continues, “The idea that leaders are accountable for their generation is prevalent in Jewish thought…Once we accept the role of moral leadership, we are truly accountable for our community. But the Rabbis teach us that societal accountability is not granted solely to those who have been granted formal authority, but to all those of learning. “If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land…But if he sits in his home and says to himself, ‘What have the affairs of society to do with me? …Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!’—if he does this, he overthrows the world” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2). Responsibility does not just apply to the scholar. The Rabbis confirm that this responsibility is upon all of us. “Everyone who can protest the sin of his household and does not, is responsible for the people of his household; for the people of his city, he is responsible for the people of his city; for the whole world, he is responsible for the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b). There are many different ways to take responsibility and to fulfill the commandment, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” (Leviticus 19:16). The world continues to exist because humans are responsible agents. When we give up our ability to hear the voices of protest and the cry of the sufferer, we bring the world to ruin.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his 1971 “A Prayer for Peace”: “O Lord, we confess our sins; we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Re’eh: Giving

If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and do not harbor resentment in giving to him, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Devarim 15:7-11)

Sometimes my heart is as wide as the sky
and I contribute willingly

but sometimes it’s closed
and my fist is clenched tight.

Sometimes I give when I see her worn face,
her crumbling teeth and watery eyes

and sometimes I see that she’s smoking, and think
she has money to burn  – she can earn her own keep.

Sometimes I give because I see that he’s drifting
he’s lost and disheveled, in need of some help

and sometimes his moth-eaten clothes are repellent
so I parry my gaze and accelerate past.

Sometimes I drop some coins from above
as she sits on the ground and rattles her cup

and then our eyes meet and I know I’m a conduit
and it isn’t so clear who gives and who gets.

In their book entitled How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman note that seeking to care for others raises inevitable fundamental challenges. In the first chapter entitled “Natural Compassion” they say, “Somewhere deep within many of us is a vision of how helping would flow from trust in ourselves and in others. Or perhaps we might recall images of life in a town in which doors didn’t have to be locked, responsibilities were more commonly shared, and going out of your way was hardly out of the ordinary. Or maybe we find ourselves yearning for a future society where the care of others wouldn’t have to be mandated. Service wouldn’t be a duty, it would be a habit — the way of natural compassion.
And yet…
Although at times helping may happen simply in the way of things, all too often helping isn’t happening at all. Even if it is, it can be anything but natural: self-conscious, half-hearted, begrudging. How much are we willing to give, and what are we holding on to? How do we really feel about the place of helping in our lives? We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence. We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness.”
Dass and Gorman add “… we face an interesting situation. Our impulses to care for one another often seem instinctive. The more we’re able to act on them freely, the more opportunity we have to feel whole, and be helpful. But there are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try…”
They consider how it might be when faced with someone asking for money, “We probably won’t get any sense of who this man asking for money really is, because we find it hard to look him in the eye; we find it hard to look most people in the eye; we find it hard to look most people in the eye on the street. We stand next to each other in the elevators and suddenly get interested in our shoes. In many of our dwellings and our communities we’ve invested a good deal in our privacy. If we speak infrequently to our neighbors, are we any more likely to respond to this stranger? With nothing to go on, we guess who he is. Newly released mental patient? We might go to our pocket. Alcoholic? We’d only be making things worse. Who knows? So we give…or we don’t…and we walk on.”

In the Parasha which deals with the laws of the Sabbatical year, Parashat Behar, the people are instructed that they may eat “whatever the land during its sabbath may produce,” (Vayikra 25:6). The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes, “Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitudes will change.”

On the verse,”Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings” Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz comments, “What you give to the poor is something which is given to him from heaven, and you are only an intermediary who passes it on. [As it says,] you shall surely raise [your enemy’s fallen ass with him] – the help you offer your fellow is something that has been ordained by heaven, and simply the privilege has fallen to you to help him.”
On the same verse, the Dubna Maggid notes that the text says, “Naton titen lo” – which is usually translated as “You shall surely give him,” but the Hebrew actually repeats the verb: the first conjugation, “naton” is an infinitive absolute, which implies emphasis, the second conjugation, “titen” means “you shall give”. So it could be translated as, “Give, you should give”. The Maggid says that God only mandates the first “give”. He says, “The first time you do it out of faith and obligation, but after the first giving, once you see that you lack nothing, indeed the opposite, in place of lack, comes an outpouring of blessing, then you will already give of your own volition…”
In another teaching, the Maggid comments, “You should not check too assiduously if the recipient is worthy or not, you should judge him favorably, thus the Holy One Blessed be He will act accordingly with you, and not check you too assiduously either.” On the phrase, “and do not harbor resentment in giving to him” [the text says, “velo yayra levav’cha betitecha lo”” which literally could be translated “don’t let your heart feel bad when you give to him,”] the Maggid continues, “Don’t check up after him in a mean-spirited way, whether he really needs it, or is worthy, or could actually make a living some other way. For also here…just as you desist from searching for defects in him, God will bless you without being too critical of your deeds, because if He holds to strict justice, no-one is going to be found to be righteous.”

In a commentary on Parashat Re’eh from 2011,, Rabbi Marc Wolf examines the first two verses above and suggests that they form the basis for the mitzvah of tzedakah. He says, “Within the above verse[s] two phrases play important roles in defining the halakhah for observing the mitzvah of tzedakah, both of which deal not with the amount of tzedakah to give but the intention and the motivation behind the act. The word choice and grammatical structure are our clues. The first is using the phrase “harden your heart.” In his read on this verse, the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noah Berezovski, goes so far as to assert, quoting Maimonides and other sages, that giving tzedakah requires a pure intention and favorable disposition. The Slonimer states that if we do not give willingly and happily, then although we achieve the desired outcome of supporting someone in need, we are not fulfilling the mitzvah as God would have wanted. The second key phrase is in the charge to “open your hand.” The translation does not pick up on the nuance, but the Hebrew grammar deploys a verb structure that emphasizes the importance of giving. This grammatical structure is echoed further in the text, underscoring the importance of not only the act of giving, but the attitude as well.”

In the final chapter of their book, entitled Reprise: Walking Each Other Home, Dass and Gorman conclude, “Perhaps, finally, we can trust a little more – both ourselves and the process. We have much more to offer than we may realize. All we have to do is ask “How can I help?” with an open heart, and then really listen.”


Ekev: Only this

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (Devarim 10:12-13)

Six hundred and thirteen precepts
to unravel,
an elaborate system of laws
to uphold.
And now, O Israel, what does your God ask
from you?
Only this: to walk in His ways.
But how?
To love Him and serve Him.
Only you
with your singular heart and soul,
only you
can take your matchless vessel
and fill it
with His light.

In the book Speaking Torah – Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table (Vol 2) by Rabbi Arthur Green et al*, a commentary is brought on the above verses by the Noam Elimelech – Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk**, who teaches that God created the world to benefit His creatures. But, he says, this wellspring of good needs a vessel to contain it. He brings an analogy: you want to give a gift of wine or honey to your friend, but have no suitably ornate container in which to put it. You could borrow a beautiful silver vessel from the friend and return it filled with the wine or honey. “In the same way, every person is a vessel, a container. The means by which you prepare and fix your vessel so that it can contain the flow of goodness from God are the fear and love of God, following God’s commandments and pathways. Through this you become a beautiful and appropriate vessel that God can borrow from you and return full of good.”
On the phrase, “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you?” the word for “ask – sho’el“, also means “borrow” so the Noam Elimelech reads this as asking under what conditions will God borrow the vessel (that is, you) in order to fill it with His goodness and blessing, and he answers that if you serve God as the verse describes – to fear and love Him and follow His ways, then you become a fitting vessel.
Rabbi Green sees this as another call for Divine-human partnership. He says, “God’s deepest wish, to bring good and blessing to all creation, can only be fulfilled if you, the human, prepare your own vessel – your self as such a vessel – to contain that blessing.”

In a commentary on Parashat Ekev,, Rabbi Marc Wolf mentions a concept called “simplexity” which is an emerging concept that he says “recognizes that seemingly complex systems can be understood rather simply, and that what we may see as simple may have complex aspects. Simplexity asserts that there are many points when “simplicity and complexity may masquerade as each other.” He continues, “Thus, to understand something that seems complex, we should look beyond that complexity. I can think of no greater mandate for Jewish life. For a religion sometimes mired in law and ritual, Simplexity would urge us to uncover its simplicity.”
He says that this is hinted at in the above verses, and he wonders how such a simple mandate evolved into such a complex religion. He suggests an answer, “We are an inquisitive people. We strive to understand the meaning behind words. We cannot simply read a text that instructs us to walk in God’s paths — we seek to define what it means to walk in God’s paths…” And he notes that because the commentators are well aware that reverence and love cannot be commanded (the Etz Hayim commentary of the JTS cites the dictum from the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except whether a person will choose to revere God” (Berachot 33b)), they have focused on the plethora of commandments that Judaism has developed as the basic meaning of this verse. However Rabbi Wolf cites the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky***, who he says, restores the concept of simplicity to the verse. In his commentary, the Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe notes that the commandment is written in the singular form, “Ma Hashem Elohecha shoel me-imach – what does the Lord God ask of you?” addressing each individual. The Slonimer draws on the words of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous kabbalist and says, “Every hour, every moment, is distinct from the next since the beginning of time. Likewise, every person is unique from any other, and one is unable to accomplish what another can”… This is fundamental to understanding each individual’s obligation in the world — that each individual should have total clarity of what God demands of him/her. That is the force of the singular me-imach (of you).”
Rabbi Wolf adds, “The Slonimer continues to state that we achieve this clarity by recognizing what drives us; what motivates us and inspires us is what defines our true path and obligation to God. With this reading, we begin to understand why the verse ends in the particular, “for your good.”
He suggests that the traditional rabbinic interpretation of what God seeks from us came to encompass the entire legal and ritual system of Judaism, transformed a seemingly simple dictate “only this…” into something vastly more complex, while the Slonimer’s reading restores simplicity by “recognizing that religion must speak to the individual — and through this personalization, it begins to become clear what God demands of us, and how we accomplish that. Both look at the same verse and see either its simplicity or complexity. Our challenge is to balance simplicity/complexity.”

*Speaking Torah – Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table by Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose

**Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk (1717 – 1787) was one of the eminent founding Rebbes of the Chasidic movement. He was a prominent student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, and was brought under his tutelage by his illustrious brother the famous Tzadik and Rebbe Meshulam Zushya of Anipoli. Both brothers are central figures in Chasidic tradition and Reb Zushya is especially beloved for his sincerity and fervour. The two offered a contrast in the model of the Chasidic Rebbe, with Elimelech the ascetic scholar, and Zushya giving the impression of the charismatic “saintly simpleton”, although he too was well versed in Chasidic philosophy. The two brothers travelled together in mystical exile of repentance to atone on behalf of the whole Jewish people and the exile of the Shechinah (Divine Presence). Famous Chasidic tales are told of their encounters.
After the death of the Maggid of Mezeritch, the Chasidic movement avoided one centralised leader, as had characterised it under the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid. Instead the great leadership of students of the Maggid dispersed across Eastern Europe, from Poland to Russia, taking with them their different interpretations of Chasidic worship. Nonetheless, in this third generation, Rabbi Elimelech was considered by most of the Maggid’s students and followers as his successor. He began the dissemination of Chasidism in Poland, which subsequently increased to a much greater extent under his foremost disciple, the Chozeh of Lublin.
Rabbi Elimelech is most commonly known by the name of his popular book Noam Elimelech, a commentary on the Torah. This book is one of the principal works of Chasidism.

***Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911 – 2000) served as the Slonimer Rebbe from 1981 until his death. He is widely known for his teachings which he published as a series of books entitled Netivot Shalom. He was a prolific writer. Through his writings he was among the most influential of contemporary Chasidic rebbes, among Chasidim and non-Chasidim alike.
He was born in Baranovitsh (today in Belarus). His father was head of the local Jewish community and his mother was a great niece of the first Slonimer Rebbe, who was known by the title of his work Yesod Ho’Avoda. In 1933 he married a daughter of a future Slonimer Rebbe (the Birkat Avraham). He studied in the Slonimer yeshiva in Baranovitsh and at around the age of 19 he was appointed by the then-Slonimer Rebbe to commit to memory and subsequently write up the discourses which he (the Rebbe) delivered every Shabbat. These notes were subsequently published under the name Beit Avraham.
In 1940, Rabbi Berezovsky was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Achei Temimim, the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Tel Aviv. In 1941 he opened the Slonimer yeshiva in Jerusalem with just five students. On Friday nights he would sit with his students for hours on end, teaching them the traditional Slonimer melodies.
The Slonim Chasidic dynasty was virtually wiped out in the Holocaust; the yeshiva in Jerusalem served as the focus for its revival. As part of his effort to rejuvenate Slonimer Chasidut, Rabbi Berezovsky was responsible for collecting the oral traditions ascribed to previous Slonimer rebbes (who did not commit their teachings to writing) in works such as Divrei Shmuel and Torat Avot.
In 1954, Rabbi Berezovsky’s father-in-law agreed to assume the mantle of the Rebbe. Rabbi Berezovsky wrote up his discourses, too; they were subsequently published as Birkat Avraham.
He also authored many volumes of his own teachings, including his magnum opus, the seven-volume Netivot Shalom as well as numerous smaller works on educational issues, marital harmony and other issues.
He succeeded his father-in-law as Slonimer Rebbe following the latter’s death in 1981, serving in that capacity for almost twenty years, and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel Berezovsky.