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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Ki Tetze                            September 14, 2019 - 14 Elul, 5779

09/11/2019 05:23:45 PM


“A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold, and more just.”

-      Pope Francis

The summer is drawing to a close, kids are back in school, routines are readjusting, and once again, the High Holydays are getting close.  There is always a different flavour in the air this time of year, and in the Jewish calendar, it is called the Season of Repentance. Every morning after prayer services, we sound the shofar to remind us of this; a reminder that we all have some important soul work to do, ideally before Rosh Hashanah arrives.  We are meant to use this time to take a spiritual inventory of ourselves, recall the things we have done, good and bad, over the past year, make restitutions where they may be require, and explore areas for self-improvement for the year to come.  Ultimately, however, when the High Holydays begin, tradition teaches that each of us will come to account before God alone, and the Supreme Judge will pass his judgement upon us as we hope to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for another year.  Luckily for us, “El melech yoshev al kiseh rachamim – The Lord King sits upon the Throne of Mercy - this quote from the High Holydays liturgy reminds us that despite the forcefulness of Jewish law, God airs on the side of mercy in all cases. I think that that makes God, in many ways, a Conservative Jew.  Like Conservative Judaism, where ancient Jewish law is forced to find some reconciliation with modernity, God, in His capacity as Judge, mediates between the stricture of Jewish law and the reality of what it means to be human.

As we near the end of the Torah, Parshat Ki Tetzeh offers us kitchen sink collection of important commandments.  We see everything from family law to the treatment of animals, from healthy agricultural practices to foreign policy.  Many of the mitzvot contained in the this parsha are ones we all love to remember, laws that make us feel good about who we are as Jews as they demonstrate to the world how progressive our society was during a time when other civilizations still practiced human sacrifice, laws that makes us feel that we are deserving of the adage “a light unto the nations”.  Then there are those few laws that seem a little bit odd and seemingly without explicit purpose except perhaps to teach us that mindfulness in all aspects of life is an important philosophy – an example of this is the law of shatnez, the prohibition of wearing a garment made with intertwined linen and wool fibers.  But amidst the many sensible laws and the few odd ones, there is one in particular that stands out in our parsha this week that seems to fall into a rare third category, a category of laws that we do not talk about very often, and indeed, we tend to sweep under the proverbial rug.  This is the law of Ben Sorer Umoreh – the Law of the Glutenous Son.

The Torah describes the possible scenario in which parents may find themselves raising a gluttonous and rebellious child, who, even after chastising, still demonstrates serious behavioural problems.  In this case, according to the Torah, his parents shall “take hold of him” and bring him before the elders of the community to officially declare him a Ben Sorer Umoreh, after which, the child is stoned to death.  Fortunately, today, even in the most orthodox Jewish communities, this commandment has never been enacted.   According to tradition, it has NEVER been enacted at any time in history, in any Jewish community.  Why?  Well, obviously we wonder who would ever consider doing such a thing in the first place. But more than this, rabbinic literature demonstrates just how uncomfortable this passage was for our great rabbis throughout the ages as they tried desperately to avoid challenging the wisdom of the Torah directly.  The Rabbis of the Talmud explain that this case would only apply if the child be drunk on a particular variety of wine in particular quantities, and to have consumed particular types of food (also in particular quantities), and the Talmud continues, spending several full pages of discussion on the exact circumstances which would warrant the declaration of Ben Sorer Umoreh.  So many stipulations were made that it effectively made the real-life occurrence of such a situation impossible.

It is written in the Mishnah that the entire world stands upon three principles: Torah, service to God, and acts of lovingkindness – all three are needed for balance.  To view the words of the Torah in a vacuum, without the other two would be incorrect, and perhaps even reckless or irresponsible.  It is through the lens of service to God and acts of lovingkindness that the rabbis, in their wisdom, placed the extra stipulations on the commandment of Ben Sorer Umoreh.  So too, as Conservative Jews, we do not view Torah law in a vacuum, without considering service to God and the spirit of lovingkindness.  At the same time, we also do not deny the reality of what the Torah explicitly states, and perhaps that does mean that sometimes our ideology is in conflict.  Being human, however, is all about conflict, fallibility, the inconsistency between what we know is right and what we sometimes end up doing.  Just as we, as Conservative Jews, must muddle through an uncomfortable grey area in Judaism without the reassurance of a simple answer, or the comfortable peace of mind that goes along with it, so too, God passes judgement upon us while allowing a healthy amount of wiggle-room for our humanity.  And so, we brave the chaotic waters and do our best to always have in mind what we believe in our hearts is in service to God, we consider how those ideas might manifest themselves as as acts of lovingkindness, and attempt to keep them in balance with our tradition.  God, too, evaluates our actions with respect to Torah, while keeping in mind that Torah is only one pillar, and that the world requires all three.

Shabbat Shalom,

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780