Dvar Torah - Ki Teitzei - Kathryn Teale
I love travelling. I love both the thrill of finding something new and the comfort of recognising things that are familiar. I seek out the quirky and the beautiful things around me, and I experience things that maybe I haven’t experienced before.
Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It seems like my eyes are more open when I step out of my regular routine.
You may be wondering what this has to do with this week’s Parshah, Ki Teitzei. Well. It is a little bit of a detour, but I will take the liberty of quoting from Rabbi Wikipedia here. Parashat Ki Teitzei sets out a series of miscellaneous laws, mostly governing civil and domestic life, including ordinances regarding a beautiful captive of war, inheritance among the sons of two wives, a wayward son, the corpse of an executed person, found property, coming upon another in distress, rooftop safety, prohibited mixtures, sexual offenses, membership in the congregation, camp hygiene, runaway slaves, prostitution, usury, vows, gleaning, kidnapping, repossession, prompt payment of wages, vicarious liability, flogging, treatment of domestic animals, levirate marriage, weights and measures, and wiping out the memory of Amalek. That is quite an itinerary.
I confess, not all of that appealed to me when I read it, but some of it struck a chord. One amazing directive tells us that when an escaped slave seeks refuge with us, we are not to turn him over to his master. In the ancient laws of other peoples around us, it was stipulated that an escaped slave must be returned, usually under penalty of death, and bounty hunters were rewarded for returning them. In stark contrast, we are commanded to allow the escapee to live wherever he chooses among our settlements, and not to ill-treat him. Think of the people now, in Afghanistan, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, who are trying to escape persecution and seek refuge with us. Will we allow them to live among us, and treat them kindly? Here I was feeling very modern in my beliefs about refugees, and yet, the Torah has been teaching us what to do for millennia. Who knew?
We shall not cease from exploration, wrote TS Eliot. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.
My journey through the Torah portion continued. Some parts feel too foreign, too far in the past, but other sections show me that we are not so different from our ancestors, and we care about similar things. I was struck by the commandments which relate to ensuring we look after each other. Communal well-being is enhanced by such varied directives as the need to use latrines and to cover one’s excrement, to avoid economic exploitation and not charge interest on loans to other members of the tribe, and not to take more grapes from another man’s vineyard than would satiate your immediate hunger. In more modern parlance, they are public health guidelines, an awareness of the injustice of profiteering from the misfortunes of others, and an understanding that neither greed nor selfishness lend themselves to a sustainable society. As Hillel very famously pointed out, If I am only for myself, what am I?
This parshah is a curious mish mash, and it might not make it onto the Top 10 Parshiot to visit before you die list, but like many lesser-known places, it contains hidden gems which can surprise and delight the discerning traveller.
Speaking of visits, it was to have been our great pleasure this evening to welcome Rabbi Esther Jilovsky to our community. Alas, due to the state of Victoria having been rendered unclean by coronavirus, and deemed abhorrent by the powers that be, Rabbi Esther is still waiting for permission to travel. We have been exchanging emails recently, discussing the music for the high holydays, and more recently, our worries about her not being able to travel. Of course, we have a Plan B, which involves sharing the leadership of festival services between members of our lay leadership team, including yours truly. It was so lovely to read Rabbi Esther’s email reassuring me of her willingness to support us and contribute to our high holiday services in whatever way she is able, no matter where she is when that help is required. The difficult terrain we worry about needing to cross turns out to be a lot less daunting when we can make the journey with an experienced guide.
Which brings me back to travel. In recent times we have lamented our inability to get on a plane and go places, but lately it has occurred to me that we are still travelling, not through space, but through time. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur connect us with every Jew who has ever travelled. The High Holy Days give us opportunities to find something new and recognise something familiar, and you are bound to find some parts quirky and other parts beautiful. You’ve already received your ticket! Yes, you’ve been here before, but let’s visit it again and see what we didn’t see last time, and find out what has changed - in ourselves. Let’s break from our regular routines and take the opportunity it offers to broaden our minds, and maybe our waistlines, and to really gain something memorable from the journey.
“I wish I had never gone traveling,” said no one ever. Shabbat shalom