11 Elul 5764
Last week we read a parasha that was fairly uniform in focus: Shoftim deals with the ancient judicial system. This week’s parasha is more of a grab bag of laws, ranging from instructions for digging a latrine outside the borders of the camp to business ethics. There are more mitzvot here than any other parasha: 72 separate precepts, according to the Rambam. A lot of it seems dated, irrelevant to how we live: offenses are punished by stoning, public flogging and even cutting off a hand; the rules about sexual relations assume polygamous marriages and a patriarchal society. There are prohibitions against cross-dressing, against charging interest when you lend money to Jews, against interplanting two crops in the same field, and other rules that seem pretty arbitrary and inapplicable today.
On the other hand some of the laws in this parasha remain quite relevant. Don’t make an impoverished laborer wait overnight for his pay. Protect the rights of those who have no one to stand up for them: the non-citizen, the widow, the fatherless. Use honest weights and measures in trade.
I want to look at a few verses from the parasha that seem at first unconnected to life in New Haven, and relate them to a project were starting at BEKI, a project that I hope you will participate in. If it thrives it will help us become an even more caring community than we are now.
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent (Deut. 22:1-4).
“You must not remain indifferent.”
The root, ayin, lamed, mem, means to hide, to conceal. In this verse, the verb is in the reflexive form, so it means you must not hide yourself, and by extension, it means you mustn’t ignore or run away from your neighbor’s needs.
If you see someone’s beast of burden fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it. The verse uses the same verb, “ve-hit`alamta” — don’t remain indifferent, don’t hide yourself; you have an obligation to help.
Turning for a moment from the Torah to Pirqe Avot, Rabbi Simon the Just is quoted in the first chapter for his epigram,
Upon three things the world is based:
upon the Torah
upon divine service
and upon acts of kindness.
Here at BEKI we read and study Torah and try to observe its mitzvot, so I think we’ve got Torah covered. We certainly hold worship services, which is a conventional way to interpret the second pillar, avoda. It’s that third one that I want to talk about: gemilut hasadim. Doing acts of hesed, kindness. I think we can do that a little better….
[But, because I can’t resist a bad pun, heres a small digression: What did the bank robber say when he held up a bank in Me’a She`arim? “Gimme loot, Ḥasidim!”]
This fall, we are launching a Hesed Committee, chaired by Board member Muriel Banquer. This committee will not have a lot of meetings to discuss the theory of hesed. It will coordinate acts of kindness, so that no one in the BEKI family falls through the cracks.
Some people in the congregation have a support network of friends and family nearby who help each other out, and this wonderful, informal network is the model on which were basing the Hesed project. Because some people are without such a network. Some are new to the community or have no family in the area. They may need a little help, but they don’t know where to turn.
From now on, they can turn to BEKI, and the Hesed committee will do what it can. Here are the kinds of things were talking about: rides to services or BEKI programs. Rides for kids when their parent is unable to drive. An occasional phone call or visit to someone who lives alone or in assisted living. A cooked meals or groceries for someone recuperating from illness or surgery. Of course, we can’t provide regular nursing service or permanent carpooling, but we can extend a helping hand, and we should.
How will this work?
Well, were just getting started, and there may be some kinks till we work out the process, but, basically, its up to you to tell us how you can help, and its up to you to ask for help if you need it or let us know if someone else needs help. Sometimes a person needs one kind of help but can provide a different kind. George Posener, for example, needs a ride to shul on Shabbat morning, but has volunteered to make calls to let people know were thinking of them. If thats the way this project works, then who can say in which direction the kindness is flowing?
You received a form a week or two ago asking you what kind of help you’re willing to give and whether you’re willing to pitch in occasionally or on a regular basis. Please fill that form in and send it to the office. Or pick up a new copy, available in the lobby.
If you would like some help, short or long term, or know someone who would, please call the BEKI office and let Peggy know. She’ll get in touch with Muriel who will coordinate the volunteers. We’ll do the best we can to provide what’s needed.
Quoting again from Pirqe Avot:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Ask for help if you need it. Don’t remain silent.
If I am only for myself, then what am I?
Give help to others. Its the menschlich thing to do. It will make us better people. It will make the community stronger. It’s tiqun olam.
And if not now, when?
“You must not remain indifferent.”
See also Parashat Huqat-Balaq by Gila Reinstein
See also Parashat VaEthanan — Installation of Officers by Gila Reinstein
Email President Gila Reinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org