By Reb David
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, this week’s Torah portion (Ki Tetzei) seems focused on countless what-if details of how to live a spiritual life embedded in the rough and tumble of human society. Bookending these details, however, is a profound spiritual reminder of the most fundamental kind.
The 74 mitzvot (commands) in this week’s portion are diverse: they include how to wage war, how to deal with wayward children, how to deal with corpses, when to return wayward animals, which clothing to wear, how to build a house roof, re-marrying one’s former spouse, loans and interest, what can’t be pawned for money, fair weights and measures, and more besides. Some of these mitzvot are relics of ancient customs not easily translated to 21st century life, but we can appreciate how rooted they are in both individual and collective justice. They remind us that “God is in the details” of how we live among others, not just our good intentions. In spiritual life, what we do is vitally important.
What most has my focus in this year’s reading of Ki Tetzei is how it begins and ends. Ki Tetzei begins with what our ancient forebears learned about how to act after winning a war; it ends with a reminder to always remember how another tribe (Amalek) – a Biblical symbol for Otherness – ruthlessly attacked the most vulnerable Israelites along the way.
If we must fight a war, Torah says, after winning we must give “vanquished” a month to grieve before taking them into our fold. (The ancient Canaanite practice was for soldiers to marry the women of a vanquished people, but Torah is more ethical: first let them grieve.) From this injunction, we learn that the “victor” must not give into temptation speedily, and that the “vanquished” have rights – and a heart and soul no less precious than our own – for which the “victor” becomes responsible. What a life lesson to bring from military battlefields to playgrounds, workplaces and dinner tables!
But sometimes we don’t “win”: sometimes we “lose,” as when Amalek (Otherness) picked off our most vulnerable. We must never forget that this occurred, precisely so that we don’t do the same. We can and must forgive so we don’t freight ourselves with grudges and resentment, but forgiving is different from forgetting. Torah bids us to remember (without resentment or grudge) so that we become more ethical in how we behave. Hurt can deepen our commitment to living ethically: what an awesome life lesson in itself.
Together, these two lessons – treat the weak well, and remember (but don’t begrudge) how Others mistreated us when we were weak – combine powerfully. Together they say that mistreatment does not excuse mistreatment. Being hurt can explain hurting others but rarely justifies it. To the contrary, one who has known hurt and battle knows their high cost and becomes doubly obligated to treat others well as a result.
What’s more, together these lessons bookend some 72 other mitzvot about justice – 18 (numerological equivalent of חי / chai, or life) for each of Jewish mysticism’s Four Worlds of physicality, emotion, intellect and spirit. The symbolism is striking: it’s as if to say that in the universe of possibilities about how our lives will unfold, sometimes we’ll “win” and sometimes we’ll “lose,” but always in our core we must turn toward acting justly toward others in all realms.
That’s the essence of teshuvah – the spiritual return of this current month of Elul that leads to Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days. At every level – in body, heart, mind and spirit – we undertake the journey to examine, note hurts (our own and others’), make amends and resolve to do better. Whether we feel that this year was a “winner” or a “loser,” the call to teshuvah and justice resounds.
Win some, lose some. Spiritually speaking, however, a life led justly – humanely and kindly, no matter how life unfolds – is always a winner in the end. Shanah tovah.