Can you imagine all the stories of the Land of Israel told to children during the 400 years of slavery in Egypt and 40 years of wandering in the desert? In the heat of the day, spending hours baking bricks for Pharaoh’s cities, perhaps a grandmother told her granddaughter of the comforting breezes and the shady places in the Promised Land. While walking in the wilderness, perhaps a young boy was suffering from thirst, so his father comforted him with tales of the delicious fruits that grow in the Promised Land. And, when the Amalekites attacked Israel, perhaps Joshua dreamed of the deep peace he might one day discover in the Promised Land. Parashat Ki Teitzei describes the time that our ancestors are preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael, the Promised Land, the mythical place of their dreams. They must have been beyond excited: a new life of comforting breezes, delicious fruits, and true peace was just on the horizon, less than three weeks’ distance.
And what does God instruct Moses to say to those gathered, hardly able to contain themselves? God sets before them a detailed prescription of how they are to act in their new homeland. According to Maimonides, this Torah portion contains 72 mitzvot, most of which are concerned with the moral values that God would like to see instituted in the Promised Land. These laws are meant to help people consciously focus their actions in such a way that their society will become a place in which people care about one another. Some are a bit shockingly specific: “When you take the field against your enemies, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife… ,” this is how you should treat her (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). “If a parent has a wayward and defiant son… ” this is how he should be punished (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). “You must pay [a hired worker] his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it.” (Deuteronomy 24:15) These are the principles that the Israelites were given to create a holy nation.
And on and on goes this long list of mitzvot. Laws concerning how to treat the widow, the orphan, the rejected wife, the hungry, the slave who is fleeing from his master, and the one who suffers a skin disease hardly paint a picture of the land of their dreams! Where are the good times? Where is their paradise? Where is their fulfillment, if not perfection? All these mitzvot come to prepare the Children of Israel for what is just around the corner – not a perfect life, but a life of potential; not the “Promised Land,” but a land filled with promise.
We, too, are poised at the edge of something new and full of promise. Just on the horizon, less than three weeks’ distance, sits Rosh HaShanah and a new year of possibility. Some may dream: “This is the year that I’m going to get it right. This is the year I turn it all around. I’ll be the perfect parent, the ideal spouse, the most loving son or daughter to my aging parent …” Visions of our highest selves are necessary if we are to advance, but like the dreams B’nei Yisrael had of life on the other side of the Jordan River, our dreams of the year ahead must be tempered with the realities of life on the ground. We are truly works in progress.
When the Kotzker Rebbe was asked to define a life of Chasidism, he answered, arbetn oif zikh, that is, “to work on yourself.” We do work on ourselves throughout the year, examining and reexamining our behaviors, but certainly, that work is intensified now in preparation for the High Holy Day.
As we work on ourselves, we see more clearly what the mitzvot shared in this parasha are trying to convey. They are meant to promote a style of living whereby people are not cut off from one another. They are meant to inspire connection and engagement. In Ki Tetzei we learn that we are supposed to behave in this way not only toward our own kin but also toward the stranger and the orphan, toward the widow and, yes, even toward our enemies. We need to remember that unfortunately, in today’s world, it is very easy for us to build a life that blinds us to the problems of others. Those who are fortunate can surround themselves with safe neighborhoods, good schools, and a clean environment. But all too often we become so self-absorbed that we forget the needs of those who exist beyond our own immediate boundaries. God understood that we need a little prodding in order to extend ourselves. Our tradition states that every Jew must see himself leaving Egypt and must see herself standing at Sinai. It is also said that each and every Jew must also see himself or herself entering the Promised Land. In every moment we need to act in such a way that we bring sacredness into our world.
So, like our ancestors poised east of the river, we imagine with curiosity and anticipation what lies ahead for us now. Rabbi Yael Splansky, a young woman whose family I have known for several generations, shares the following. “For at least three reasons, we should pursue the visions we have of our highest selves. First, we have implanted within us, the human capacity for change. No matter our previous failures to break from bad habits, no matter our fears of taking risks, we can change. Second, we are not alone in our desire for change. We can draw strength from the Jewish People, past and present, which shares a never-ending journey through the wilderness toward promise. And third, we must have faith that God is forgiving. Even if we fall short, even if reality strikes and we miss the mark, God rewards us for having made the effort with all our soul and with all our being.” The shofar is sounded in the month of Elul. Let us hear its call, the call to advance toward our dreams, and do our very best to elevate ourselves to a higher state of holiness.