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Ki Tetzei, August 24, 2018

08/24/2018 10:14:27 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Parashat Ki Tetzei


I’m not sure if you heard, but Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner. I mean, of course you’ve heard. Rob Knapper blew the shofar last week at the end of the service. We’ve been singing high holiday themed tunes all night tonight. I’ve already gotten two Rosh Hashanah cards (thanks Charlotte and Jeffrey). Let’s face it, Rosh Hashanah is at hand.

As we all know, the High Holidays have three themes, the themes that will appear on our Torah Mantles at Selichot, the themes that appear in the prayer unetaneh tokeph: T’fillah, Teshuvah and Tzedakah, usually translated as prayer, repentance and charity. These are the things that are supposed to lessen, or help us cope with, the severity of the decree. Often we focus on the first two when we talk about the high holy days. And why not? We spend a lot of time praying, and a lot of time fasting, and reflecting on the past year and our actions. Prayer and repentance seem like good things to focus on this time of year. And they are, but I want to focus on the third: tzedakah.

Tzedakah is usually translated as charity, and that’s how many people think of it. As a kid, tzedakah meant the quarter I brought in to Sunday School to give to the teacher. It was what you did. Just a thing. But of course, tzedakah means something else. It means Justice. What does justice have to do with prayer and repentance? Charity would make more sense, right? We pray, we ask forgiveness, and we give of ourselves. What’s this justice all about?

When we talk about justice we talk about two different ideas; legal justice and restorative justice. Most of the time we talk about legal justice; Law and Order stuff. There’s been a lot of legal justice in the news lately. You may have noticed: plea deals and trials and convictions and other stuff.

That is one aspect of justice, an important one. But it isn’t the only one. Restorative justice is a term that’s more in the news these days as well. Restorative justice recognizes that there are always those in our society who are mistreated legally. Who, by the pure letter of the law, are allowed to suffer, but that we as a society recognize that suffering and wish to alleviate it. Not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because it is right. This is the justice of the prophets, the justice we talk about when we mention social justice. Without a doubt, rule of law is important and necessary; but sometimes our laws don’t create the kind of conditions that allow for full equality, the alleviation of poverty, and the recognition of the holiness in each individual. So we need both. And both appear in our Torah portion. Yes, it’s a potpourri of laws about warfare, loved and unloved wives, rebellious children, not wearing wool blend clothes, and the like. But it also includes reminders that we mustn’t charge fellow Israelites interest, that we cannot deprive the poor, even if they owe us something, that the gleanings of the field belong to the poor, not to us; and the text I read, that the escaped slave must be allowed to go free. Think about that; in the time this portion was written, slavery was legal in every respect. It was a natural outcome of warfare or debt. But the Torah recognizes that, despite its legal status, it’s still wrong. It’s still unjust. So it is with us. We know many who, in spite of the law, still suffer. Our task, then, is to alleviate their suffering. To make their suffering ours. And just as prayer and repentance relieve some of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, practicing justice, like any other spiritual practice, brings us closer to our best selves, and brings our world closer to the world God envisions for us, if only we would heed God’s voice.


Wed, December 6 2023 23 Kislev 5784