Friday, September 12, 2008

Parashat Ki Tetze - Surrounded by Mitzvot!

This week is a special parasha, not only because it contains the most mitzvot of any in the Torah, but it also was (one of the) parsh(iot) on which I marked my becoming a Bar Mitzvah seven years ago. Though some may find the lack of any narrative in the parashah a bit dull, I find the plethora of laws both exciting and axhilirating, as they have so much of an effect on what we do as Jews and members of a western democratic society.
This week I also began a chevruta in Midrsh with my friend Yossi, in which we plan on studying a selection of midrashim related to the week's parasha. There were so many interesting ideas in what we learned that it was hard to choose just one. the following text, about which I will comment comes from D'varim Rabbah 6:3:
ג [לכל מקום שתלך המצות מלוות אותך]
זה שאמר הכתוב (משלי א): כי לוית חן הם לראשך.
רבנן אמרי: נעשה דברי תורה חן לרשיותך.
אדם בן תורה, בשעה שהוא מזקין הכל באין ומסבבין אותו ושואלין אותו דברי תורה.

דבר אחר:
מהו כי לוית חן?
אמר רבי פנחס בר חמא: לכל מקום שתלך המצות מלוות אותך.

כי תבנה בית חדש ועשית מעקה לגגך.
אם עשית לך דלת, המצות מלוות אותך, שנאמר (דברים ו): וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך.
אם לבשת כלים, חדשים המצות מלוות אותך, שנאמר: לא תלבש שעטנז.
אם הלכת לגלח, המצות מלוות אותך, שנא': לא תקיפו פאת ראשכם.
ואם היה לך שדה והלכת לחרוש בתוכה, המצות מלוות אותך, שנאמר (דברים כב): לא תחרוש בשור ובחמור יחדו.
ואם זרעת אותה, המצות מלוות אותך, שנא' (שם): לא תזרע כרמך כלאים.
ואם קצרת אותה, המצות מלוות אותך, שנא': כי תקצור קצירך בשדך ושכחת עומר בשדה. אמר הקב"ה: אפילו לא היית עוסק בדבר אלא מהלך בדרך, המצות מלוות אותך.
שנא': כי יקרא קן צפור לפניך:
Proverbs 1:9 teaches us: "for they are a wreath to adorn your head"....
...What does it mean that they are a wreath for your head? Rabbi Pinchas Ben Hama said: Whererver you shall go, the mitzvot will accompany you!
When you build a new hoise, the mitzvot accompany you, as it says "When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof" (D'varim 22:8)
When you make a doorway, the mitzvot surround you, as it says "you should write them on the doors of your house" (D'varim 4:9)
When you go to shave, the mitzvot surround you, as it says "you shall not round the corners of your head" (Vayikra 19:27)
When you wear new clothing, the mitvot surround you, as it says "you should not wear an admixture of wool and linen" (D'varim 22:11).
If you plant a field, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written "you should not mix two species in a field" (D'varim 22:9).
When you go to plow your field, the mitzvot surround you, as it says "you shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together." (D'varim 22:10)
When you reap it, the mitzvot accompany you, as it says "when you go to reap your harvest, and forget a measure of is for the stranger, orphan and widow" (D'varim 24:19).

The Holy One Blessed Be He said: even if you are not engaged in any act and just walking along the way, the mitzvot will accompany you. How do we know this?
" If a bird's nest chance to be before you along the way" (D'varim 22:6).

When Yossi and I first looked at this midrash, we were a bit puzzled. What do we learn from this nice, but seemingly random, list of mitzvot that Rabbi Pinchas presents us with, most of them from this week's parasha? It then occured to me, as it has since I began my journey of critical, academic text study at the Conservative Yeshiva and JTS, that we must examine the text according to when it was written and not purely through our 21st century lens. According to an article in the Jewish Encyclopedia co-edited by Louis Ginzberg, this compilation of Midrash was probably edited around the year 900 in Eretz Yisrael, a time when much of the Jewish community there lived an agrarian lifestyle. Therefore, the mitzvot listed here can give us some insight into activities that were part of daily life for our ancestors over a millenium ago, when houses had flat roofs (and required parapets), and fields needed to be sown, plowed and reaped.

Rabbi Pinchas's list of daily mitzvot inspired me to consider how many opportunities I have for mitzvot in my daily life, and which I'm sure is true for many of us. In addition to 'big' mitzvot like Tefillah, Shabbat and Kashrut, I am amazed by how many opportunities there are in my immeadite community to engage in both mitzvot bein adam laMakom (between humans and God) and Bein Adam L'chaveiro (between humans). JTS's Va'ad Gemilut Chasadim provides countless ways to give back to the community, from blood drives to volunteering at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and old age homes. These types of 'social action' mitzvot are even on our nation agenda, as seen in a forum held here at Columbia last night featuring Barack Obama and John McCain. Finally, I am fortunate to have so many opportunities to engage in serious Torah study at JTS, Columbia and the community at large.

Even if we probably won't happen upon many of the mitzvot enumermay you merit ated in this mishnah, it is our challenge from Parashat Ki Tetze to seek out mitzvot to accompany our daily lives, and activities that reflect the values taught in the Torah, even we aren't plowing with donkeys or oxen!

Shabbat Shalom, and Tizku L'mitzvot (may you merit mitzvot)!

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