Yom Sheini, 5 Tishri 5778
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Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah--Ki Teitzei

If you have ever had to help re-organize an organization, you know the adage, “If you always do what you always did, you are always going to get what you always got.” In other words, if you keep batting your head against the wall, it will keep hurting. If you want your head to stop hurting, you need to make a change. I have always found it maddening how people somehow get accustomed to beating their heads against the wall and balk when you try to get them to stop. If you have ever had to help re-organize an organization, you know the adage, “If you always do what you always did, you are always going to get what you always got.” In other words, if you keep batting your head against the wall, it will keep hurting. If you want your head to stop hurting, you need to make a change. I have always found it maddening how people somehow get accustomed to beating their heads against the wall and balk when you try to get them to stop. 

That said, one of the great book titles in the world of organizational management is, “First, Break All The Rules.” Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman elucidate the necessity of completely rethinking (deconstructing) the organization as it is before one can begin assessing what parts work or don’t and whether any existent process heads the organization in the right direction. So, if you do this work, you know that the more rules one hands you through which to sift, the messier the reorganization process because most often, there is no conversation about their application and relevance. For whatever reason they were promulgated, the time has changed, but no one thought to rethink.

I remember a story (I am sure you know it) of a young girl watching mom make a brisket. First, mom cut off the end of the meat and placed the larger piece in the pan. “Why did you do that mommy?” Mom responded, “You know, I just learned to do that from my mother. Let’s call grandma.” They called grandma and asked why she cut off the end of the brisket before cooking it. She thought and replied that her mother taught her that way. They all called great-grandma and asked. She laughed loudly and said, “It was because I never had a pan big enough for the piece of meat your grandpa brought home.”

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, includes more mitzvoth (rules) than any other. Over just four chapters of text, we get a list of 74 disparate rules. The text makes it seem as though Moses knows his time is running out and he feels mandated to get as much in at the last minute as is possible. The shotgun approach to delivering this list makes us skeptical as to whether or not there was any unifying intention behind them.

Herein lays the beauty of this tradition. The lists make absolute sense to some, are simply disparate lists to others, and for still others, they depict a literary equivalent to other such lists of rules in antiquity. Simply put, Torah begins but never completes a conversation. In its purest sense, it fuels our spiritual evolution and grows our faith. That said, for so many, it has become an idol. It becomes concretized and stagnant and the way in which it was read by one group at one time becomes their forever exclusive truth. Groups design customs and rituals around these stagnated understandings and build fences around these customs. Anyone who “does it differently” has blasphemed. As our world becomes increasingly politically segregated, the overflow into all matters sacred becomes more narrow-minded, as well.

Reform Judaism roots in the purest sense of Torah tradition; the idea that we engage and evolve text as it evolves us. I know that normative practices in other religions understand this same mandate for the growth of faith in a changing world. I look at this portion and hear Moses telling an anxious people, “You want rules? Ok, here is a bunch of rules.” The rules are not going to save a community. The devotion to engaging people in meaningful conversation is what will save the community. Torah contains 613 of these mitzvot (rules). As Moses prepares to finish his farewell address and say good bye, his parting words are simple, “Grow together. Study together. Govern together. The rules on a page make no sense unless you give them life and (as a later sage would teach) turn them over and over again.” Our current conversation lack this dynamic of organic conversations. It is no surprise that the exile between us only continues to grow. It is time to remember the prophetic words of the late John Lennon. “Come together, right now.” Shabbat Shalom.