The Nuances of Living the Torah
Parashat Ki Teitzei (Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) is a laundry-list of how the Biblical Israelites were supposed to live.
Images courtesy of https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/09/03/hurricane-dorian-how-help-bahamas-and-florida-relief-efforts/2196455001/
Some of the laws found in it make me very glad the Rabbis came along and through the halachic system, interpreted them in much more enlightened, humane ways.
See for example: The Rebellious or Wayward Son (cue: the Kansas song) discussed in chapter 21:18-21, whom we are supposed to stone to death. Personally speaking, if I had to carry out this particular command, my son would be long gone (pu pu, hamsa hamsa), and I am pretty certain most parents of teenagers would be in similar straits.
Thankfully, the Rabbis determined that the conditions necessary for a child to be stoned to death were pretty much impossible to fulfill so therefore, no one can stone their rebellious child to death (big sigh of relief!)
But among all of these Biblical mitzvot- the positive and negative statements about how to live life- there's one that stands out for me from all the rest, because we have physical evidence to corroborate that Israelites truly lived by these laws.
The pesukim (verses) in question are below:
Let's take a careful look at this small section of Torah.
First, we have to recognize that none of us reading this text likely has experienced the level of poverty alluded to here. The Torah is describing a person who needed a loan for some reason and the only thing s/he had to offer was a cloak, or outer garment, that a person would use at night as a blanket.
Think about that. The only thing you have as collateral to give your creditor ensuring that you will pay back your loan is... a blanket.
After seeing the devastation of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, and the thousands of people who now have literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, perhaps we can begin to understand just a little of how utterly destitute such a person was.
This kind of person is utterly penniless, living in a hut or hovel. Akin to the homeless people we see on the streets of Miami sleeping on their cardboard boxes or under a little ripped tarp below the highway overpass. Abject poverty.
So how are we to treat such a person -- barely washed, likely illiterate, what some people might call a total failure at life? With absolute, inviolable human dignity.
You are the creditor. S/he hasn't paid you back the money you loaned.
By law, who owns the garment in pledge? Any banker will tell you- they do! Have you realized yet that if you have a mortgage on your home, you actually do not own your house? Nope. The bank (graciously) lets you live there until you pay off the loan. If you don't pay, what happens? They will (less graciously) take it back from you!
But in Torah, while the creditor indeed still owns the pledged item, that doesn't give them the right to enter your miserable little hovel to take it back, even though it is legally theirs!
Instead, the creditor has to wait outside until you bring it to him each morning. And you have to return it to him each night!
Because there are things that are legal, but still they aren't right- to be more accurate, they aren't tzedakah, i.e, righteousness.
Each human being, no matter how miserably poor, no matter how unwashed or low in life, just by being human is endowed with inalienable rights. And our Founding Fathers took this concept straight from Torah.
What's beautiful is that this Torah teaching wasn't theoretical-it actually was applied in ancient Israelite society as we see from this picture below of an Ostracon from the 7th century BCE in the Land of Israel (found in Understanding the Bible Through History and Archaeology by Harry M. Orlinsky).
1 Let my lord the official (or governor) hear
2 the complaint of his servant. As for your servant -
3 your servant was reaping in Ḥa –
4 ṣar Assam (?). Your servant had reaped…
7 … Then came Ḥashavyahu son of Shova –
8 I and took away your servant’s garment…
10 All my fellow workers, who were reaping with me in the heat, will testify for me…
Here we see that a Judean reaper, a man who was a day laborer reaping crops in Southern Israel, appealed to the local authorities that his garment/ blanket was taken by another man unlawfully.
The Torah was truly a living document, a living constitution for the Israelites, even long before the Rabbis came onto the historical scene. The "Justice, justice shall you pursue" of last week's portion was lived out in this week's portion.
May each of us be reminded of the inviolable dignity of every human being and be spurred to compassion to help each other maintain and grow in dignity now and in the New Year ahead.
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