Ki Tetze– by Rabbi Cantor Eliezer Kepecs
This week’s Torah portion of Ki Tetze deals with one’s relationships in life. It covers relationships with our captives and prisoners of war, relationships with our friends and family, as well as our most intimate relationships with our spouses. It is a section of Torah which mentions the “Ben Sorer U’moreh,” one’s wayward son, a neighbor’s property gone astray, your fellow’s ass…the braying kind…or ox fallen on the road. It teaches about forbidden mixtures, forbidden relationships, and prostitution prevalent among certain nations of the Bible. Ki Tetze instructs about divorce law, loans, pledges, and finally remembering what Amalek did to you when you were most vulnerable on your journey from Egypt.
The Torah is designed to be a “real” life guide book containing stories of real life personalities complete with all of their human flaws as we shall see in a moment, and not just some idealistic book of perfect saints. There is an old rabbinic adage, “Ma’aseh Avot siman labanim,” “the deeds of the fathers become a sign unto the children.” We see this basic principle throughout biblical history, beginning with the first people mentioned in the Torah- Adam and Eve, and continuing today displaying dysfunctionality within the families of their descendents. This Patriarch and Matriarch of society were specifically instructed by God whom they had a close relationship with, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They violated this command which inadvertently set into play all the negative relationships that were to follow throughout history.
– Their son, Cain, becomes jealous of his brother, Able, and commits the first murder recorded in history.
– Noah’s son and grandson, Ham and Canaan, see the nakedness of Noah, in their Patriarch’s drunken stupor, and instead of doing the proper thing and covering him, Ham embarrasses his father by telling his brothers about it, and Canaan commits some unspeakable sexual act to him.
– Abraham has two rival sons, Yishmael and Yitzchak.
– Yitzchak has two rival sons Esau and Yaakov.
– Yaakov tricks his father, Yitzchak, into bestowing upon him the blessing of the first born instead of it going to its rightful owner, Esau.
– Yaakov, in turn, is tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying his daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel, after working to receive his beloved Rachel for 7 years. Upon agreeing to work for Laban an additional seven years, he finally gets Rachel as a wife.
– Rachel doesn’t want her father practicing idolatry anymore, so she steals and hides his idols. Unfortunately, Yaakov puts a curse upon the thief, which causes his beloved to die.
– Jacob has 12 sons, who cannot get along, want to kill their father’s beloved son, Yosef, but end up selling their brother into slavery.
– Bringing his blood stained coat of many colors to their father, they lead Yaakov to believe that Yosef was eaten by a wild animal.
– After witnessing all the wonders that God performed for them in Egypt, and the splitting of the Red Sea, and Manna falling from heaven, the Israelites still complained to God that they had no meat to eat, that it was better for them being slaves in Egypt. They built a Golden Calf to worship, after witnessing God’s revelation of the Torah.
You see, negativity breeds negativity which gets passed down like a curse from generation to generation. “Ma’aseh Avot siman labanim.” “the deeds of the fathers are a sign unto the children.” It is no wonder that the world we live in today is in such a sorry state.
Very often, people seek power for the sake of power, and for the control over others. Power is often sought after for the wrong reasons, and not for the benefit of all concerned. We all know the saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Just as negative energy breeds negative energy, positive energy is likewise contagious. It has the power to positively change the world. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers chapter 1, we read, “Moshe kibel Torah miSinai, um’sarah Lihoshua, V’Yeshoshua l’zkeinim, u’zkeinim l’nevi’im, u’nevi’im m’saruha l’anshe K’nesset Hag’dolah.” “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” This is the basic premise of Rabbinic Judaism. Moses bestowed authority upon Joshua who passed it along to the Men of the Great Assembly, the early Rabbis, who passed this Semichah along to today’s Rabbis.
The Rabbi’s function is that of the primary teacher, preacher, and spiritual leader of Israel. He is well versed in matters of Halachah – of Jewish law, often having to decide solutions to modern day problems based on his knowledge of the ancient law books. Rabbi Milton Polin, Rabbi Emeritus of Kingsway Jewish Center and a close friend of mine used to tell me, that a good Rabbi does not necessarily have to know all the answers, but rather where to find them. Having been a professional Cantor for 19 years, and now a Rabbi, I feel it must be that the Rabbi work closely with the Reverend Cantor who is supposed to be an expert in his specialized field of prayer and matters concerning Jewish Law and music that directly affects his own work. Therefore the optimal situation is for the Rabbi and the Cantor to work together in harmony which can cause great things to occur.
Our Sages teach us in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, “Kol hamechabed et haTorah, gufo m’chubad al habriot.” “Whoever brings honor to the Torah, will by definition, receive honor from others.” Therefore, mutual respect between the Rabbi and Cantor must be established early on in the relationship and a sense of trust in the other as two partners have. For when push comes to shove in a Synagogue’s less than perfect atmosphere, the Rabbi and Cantor are a team who can accomplish incredible things. In order for this mutual respect to develop, they both must be well versed in Hillel’s famous teaching. The story goes, when the great sage, Hillel, was asked by a gentile to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he offered this advice: “What is distasteful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary. Now go study the commentary.” (Gemarah Shabbat 31a). William Shakespeare alludes to it, when his character of Iago, is peer pressuring Othello into thinking his wife is unfaithful to him and making Othello look bad in front of his boys, he blasts him with “He who steals my purse, steals nothing. T’was mine, tis his, t’will be another. But he who steals my name steals everything.”
That which is despicable to you, do not do unto others. Or in the positive, “V’ahavta L’reiachah kamocha,” “love thy neighbor as thyself.” mentioned in Leviticus 19:18. This negativity often manifests itself in the form of jealousy of others, or even avarice. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the greedy, hypocritical Pardoner preaches that avarice is the root of all evil, even though he himself is ruled by the same avarice he denounces.
According to the great sage, Hillel, the law “V’ahavta L’reiachah Kamocha,” is the basis for the entire Torah. Israel can even win wars by practicing this law faithfully. “If you shall say in your heart, these nations are much greater than I in numbers, how will I defeat them. Do not fear them, for remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and all of Egypt…thus will the Lord your God do to all the nations that you fear,” Deuteronomy 7:17. In the portion of Ekev, God makes a promise to Israel for all time, that as long as they follow His commandments, and obey His laws, He will bless His people with abundance, and destroy the enemies of Israel. “V’ahavta l’reiachah kamocha,” “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Other religions even borrowed this golden rule from us. It is actually one of three things that changes God’s decree toward us. In the High Holiday liturgy, it says, “U’teshuva, ut’filah, utzedaka, ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zera.” “And Repentance, and prayer, and charity (acts of loving kindness), change the severity of God’s decree.” We are all created in the image of God, and therefore it is incumbent upon us all to act in a “Godly” sort of way, in a holy way, with “Derech Eretz,” kindness, compassion and respect toward our fellow man, and to live our lives clothed in holiness. The Torah teaches that when Moses ascended the mountain to repent for the nation’s sin of the Golden Calf, he recalled that God is a merciful God, slow to anger, and remembers kindnesses. We too, should model our behavior after this manner when dealing with our fellow man. Rabbis must therefore use their authority which was bestowed upon them, to bring the teachings of Torah to the masses, but also to bring peace and harmony to a dysfunctional society. A synagogue’s dysfunctional, negative energies can be transformed by a good Rabbi into positive energies, thereby laying the foundation necessary for study of God’s Torah. As a role model and teacher, a Rabbi has the power to pass along positively charged ripples to help build a new model for “Ma’aseh Avot siman labanim.” By embodying this mission of “Tikun Olam,” “fixing the world,” we speed up the coming of the Mashiach bim’heirah veyameinu, and let us say, Amen.
Written and presented by Rabbi Cantor Eliezer Kepecs upon receipt of his Semicha (Rabbinic Ordination) on Sun. June 3, 2007. All rights reserved. No part of this speech may be reproduced in any way, without mention of the copyright’s name.
Read about Lawrence E. Kepecs’ other news items: