Sermon: 29 August – Shabbat Ki Tetze (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 September 2015

Midrash, as you know, is a time honoured way of interpreting Torah and has been used for at least two thousand years, continuing until the present day.  One of the favourite versions of the rabbis of old was to introduce a king, a human king, who they referred to in Hebrew as מלך בשר ודם, a king of flesh and blood.  This was their way of telegraphing to the reader or, more likely, listener that they were going to use an analogy between this mortal king and God, who they describe as מלך מלכי המלכים, King, King of kings.  It’s important to remember in this analogy that in midrashic times the king described was not the figurehead like most of today’s rulers, rather the arbiter of life and death, the absolute sovereign of their territory, be it the Pharaoh of Egypt or the king of a small nation state.  All of that is by way of an introduction to a midrash I’d like to share with you.

There was a king of flesh and blood who instructed his workers to fill in what appeared to be a bottomless pit.  At first they worked with great enthusiasm, but as they seemed to be making no inroads the pace slackened.  After some time, some of the workers just stood around leaning on their spades watching the rest who continued working – much like what you see as you drive past all the cones on the motorways.  Eventually, grumbling among themselves, they could be seen as three distinct groups: those who had just stopped work, believing that there was no point in continuing as the hole didn’t get any smaller; those who carried on working because they had been told to by the king, some out of fear, others for thought of reward, and a few out of their loyalty to the king; and the third small group who continued working because they considered the work itself of importance.

As you’ve already heard, this sidrah of Ki Tetze has more mitzvot than any other.  It contains 72, or 73, or 74 of the 613 commandments depending on which listing you choose.  All the commentators agree that there are 613 mitzvot, they just don’t agree on what they are!  Many of these mitzvot  are perfectly understandable, although not necessarily very appropriate to our daily lives, and some of them are completely inexplicable.  So many commandments, they must appear to lots of us as a bottomless pit, how can you ever do them all?  And often they don’t make much sense anyway.  And so there are many people who become bystanders, watching the rest of us getting on with them.  And what about we who do keep mitzvot – well some of them anyway – do we do it out of fear or reward or love of God?  or are we among the few who follow the letter of Torah because we can see in it the only way in which to live our lives?

One biblical commentator asked: Why did God give so many mitzvot, so many opportunities to go wrong?  However, a better response is that out of love for us, God gave us so many chances to do right – and to be rewarded accordingly.  Of course, we are aware that some of the mitzvot are no longer capable of being carried out since the destruction of the Temple.  Others, especially those related to agriculture, can only be fulfilled if one lives in Israel.  And there are others which only apply to a Priest or a Levite or a king or a soldier, thereby leaving many of us out.  Nevertheless, we’re still left with a huge number of laws and for the majority of us, that means having to make decisions.  To what extent do we want to accept the mitzvot into our lives?  How do we choose which to follow and which to ignore?  And why?  What constitutes for us the spirit of Judaism and what is peripheral to our thinking?  And are we motivated by theological or philosophical or ideological or even emotional reasoning in making these decisions?

To help answer some of these questions, let’s utilise a selection of the commands included in this week’s Torah reading, working backwards.  I doubt if any of us would have difficulties with the instruction to use honest weights and measures.  That speaks to our basic sense of fairness and honesty.  We would not expect – except in jokes, of course – any retailer to have two sets of scales, one for buying and one for selling.  So we can tick that one – not just for the ancient Israelites when they arrive in the Land of Israel – but for all time and all places.  And yet we know that dishonesty in business is not just commonplace around the world, in some places it’s regarded as the norm.  When I was working in industry, there were some parts of the world with which my firm just wouldn’t do business, because it wasn’t prepared to grease palms and hand out the bribes that were expected!

As I mentioned in my d’var Torah earlier, there is a section describing a fight between men and the action of the wife of one to help her husband.  The law is quite clear, if she acts immodestly the hand she uses should be cut off.  We’re far more attuned to hear of a punishment like that being in Sharia Law to stop stealing – and pretty effective it would be too!  But surely that’s not what we associate with Judaism?  It certainly wouldn’t be acceptable to we modern sophisticates of the 21st century.  Well, the truth is it wasn’t to the Rabbis of old either and they commuted this harsh penalty into a monetary fine, varying it according to circumstances, which we too would regard as essential.  So even complete commitment to the laws of Torah doesn’t mean that what is said in Torah is carried out!

And that’s also true of the strange ritual of loosening the shoe of the man who refuses to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow.  This was meant by the Torah to bring shame to the man who acts so selfishly, and yet the Rabbis decided that the imperative to undergo such a marriage should be ignored and that the ritual of contempt should be used for all such cases.  Now we may agree with the Rabbis that the women in question should not have imposed upon her this second marriage.  Indeed since Rabbenu Gershon’s decree about a thousand years ago banning polygamy among Ashk’nazi Jews, it wouldn’t have been possible in most situations anyway.  However, it’s very difficult to go along with why this ritual should be carried out and the man embarrassed through no fault of his own.

One more example. You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out the corn.  The Rabbis expanded this to apply to all animals employed in labour and they extrapolated from it the Jewish concept of kindness to animals.  They went further and extended it to the workers in the fields and permitted them to eat of the food in which they were employed in order to satiate their hunger or thirst, but no more.  This idea of compassion, whether to human or animal, is a central theme of ethical Judaism and one which we would heartily endorse.

As I mentioned in my Thought for the weekly e-mail, this is my Bar Mitzvah sidrah.  Having studied the sidrah in order to prepare for the test I had to take all those years ago and looked at them again many times since, I’m still a bit confused by the variety of laws, some of which I’m quite happy to live with, while others just don’t seem relevant  – or worse, seem to be against my world views.  That makes choice a very important concept when it come to living a Jewish life.  And so we have to be honest to ourselves and our heritage in making informed choices of how we want to live our lives Jewishly, of how we allow Judaism and its myriad laws into our lives.