First Questions

(Parashat Ki Tetzei, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Rabbi Sharon Cohen AnisfeldIn Jewish sacred time, we have entered the season of teshuva. Often translated as repentance, teshuvacomes from the Hebrew root meaning to return. However lost we feel, however far we have wandered – there is a way back. It is possible to find our way home – to God, to ourselves, to one another. At the heart of this season, then, is both a summons and an embrace.

The period of teshuva begins in earnest with the start of the Hebrew month of Elul, which we celebrated last week.  Elul provides us with a preparatory period of personal and communal soul-searching leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Hebrew name of the month is understood as an acronym for the verse from the Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

In other words, we are invited to begin the process of teshuva not from a place of shame, but from a place of love.

This is no small thing.  The very call to introspection, for so many of us, is experienced as a call to self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-blame.  These are natural, and at times, important impulses. The problem is that they can send us swiftly and sharply into a defensive posture – one of evasion and self-protection, rather than of trusting presence.

And so, Elul – the month of love – comes to coax us out of hiding.

The impulse to hide, of course, has been with us since the beginning. We need only think of the first two questions ever posed to humanity by God.  It was the wonderful teacher, activist, and writer, Leonard Fein, of blessed memory, who first called my attention to these questions, and the way – together – they call out to us from the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.

The first question is Ayeka? Where are you? This is the question that God asks Adam, when he is hiding among the trees of the garden. Where are you?  God calls out, presumably not because God needs to know the answer, but because Adam needs to hear the question. Because we need to hear the question.

Not long after, the second question rings out: Eyh hevel achicha?  Where is Abel your brother? This is the question God asks Cain, after he has taken his brother’s life.  Again, God calls out, not because God needs to know the answer, but because Cain needs to hear the question. Because we need to hear the question.

Teshuva, as we’ve said, comes from the Hebrew root meaning “return.” But the same root can also mean “response.”  Teshuva is both a return and a response to these first two questions that have been reverberating, calling out to us in every moment, since the beginning of time: Where are you? Where is your brother?

What follows are my own renderings of some of the sacred obligations in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, understood and interpreted through the prism of these primal – and perennial – questions.  I hope they open up the words of the Torah portion in new ways, but more importantly, I hope they will encourage you to experience this Elul as a gentle summons to hear and respond to these questions — in your own way, in your own time, in your own life.

***

Where are you?
Where is your brother?

Part of the problem is figuring out where I end and you begin.

Do not abuse a needy and destitute laborer,
You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets,
for he is needy and urgently depends on it. 

In other words, if you’re working for me,
that does not mean you are an extension of me.
You have your own life, your own family to feed.
If I’ve forgotten that during the day,
I’d better remember by the time the sun sets.

Parents shall not be put to death for children,
nor children be put to death for parents:
a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.

Parents and children are so bound up with each other
by blood, genetics, history, love (if we’re lucky).
There are a thousand ways to make the same mistake –
the mistake of thinking we’re just extensions of each other.
We’re not.

Here is the thing:
If you open your eyes and widen your gaze,
There are so many people around
Who are not you!

Starting with your parents, your children, your brothers and sisters,
But stretching way beyond the gates of your own home,
Beyond the edges of your own field.

Part of what makes this so complicated is that they are not you –
but they do have a claim on you.
There are things you owe them.
And so you’ve got to try to be clear about where you end and they begin –
but not too clear.

Take your field, for example.
It belongs to you, and it is yours to harvest.
But remember.
When you reap the harvest in your field
and overlook a sheaf in the field,
do not turn back to get it;
it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, the widow.

If you get too preoccupied with making sure that you go back
and harvest every last bit of grain, every olive, every piece of fruit –
so that there’s nothing left for anyone else to take,
for anyone else to find –
then you’ve gone too far.

Because it’s those rough edges
that leave room for someone else to enter
your field, your life, your heart.
Both of you need this.

That’s why teshuvah is not about attaining perfection.
Actually it’s not about attaining anything.
Lo tashuv l’kachto.
Don’t go back to get it.
Teshuvah is not about going back to do it all perfectly this time –
With no rough edges.

It’s about listening again and again to those first two questions:
Where are you?
Where is your brother?

When we stop hearing those questions –
Either because we are too afraid or because we think we’re safe,
When we’re too tired or full of doubt
To worry about the people at the end of the line
Or at the edges of our field,
When we want them
Or the claims they make on us
To disappear –
There is nothing more dangerous.
Lo tishkach.
Don’t forget.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is the Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA and author of “On Being Caught in the Thicket, ” a reflection from the Hebrew College High Holiday Companion, published in August 2017, for study and reflection during the High Holidays. 

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Meet Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld at Hebrew College’s Fall Open House & Day of Learning, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 6.  Learn more.

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