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Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Ki Teitzei is the last Torah portion to present us with a collection of laws. Like other parashiot that are heavy on rules and regulations, this one has us struggling with some aspects of the text and truly moved by others. Among the more disquieting injunctions are the laws about stoning to death onewayward and defiant son” (Deut. 21:18), or the disturbing punishment” for a rapist who is not only ordered to marry his victim but also prohibited from ever divorcing her. Other laws are more inspiring. Torah commands us to pay employees’ wages on time, to defend the rights of the widow and the orphan, to engage in ethical business practices, and to sustain the destitute by donating ones surplus.

Being commanded,” however, is a challenge to us because we have been raised to be fiercely independent. We question authority and seek to carve our own path in life, to live out our own truth. There is real self-empowerment in living this way, but there is also a real danger of becoming overly self-centered and narcissistic. Consider, therefore, that there may be value in being commanded. Having no choice about certain things may help us tame our ego. We are commanded, for example, to give tzedakah/charity every week before Shabbat because, our rabbis say, meeting the needs of the poor cannot be dependent on whether or not we feel generous in any given week. The fact that we know ourselves to be commanded bypasses the resistance of our ego and obligates us to behave in holistic ways. This is what Halacha—the complete body of Jewish law evolving from the Jewish Bible and the Talmud—is about. Through Halacha, Judaism has mapped out every moment and aspect of a Jewish life, and strictly orthodox Jews follow these commandments to the letter, although many Halacha scholars, without rejecting the historical relevance of commandments that challenge our modern consciousness, have re-interpreted some laws and stopped following others.

I studied Halacha for a while with an orthodox rabbi who finds true beauty in following a spiritual path that he believes is divinely inspired. Living in this prescribed way supports his awareness of Gods ever-Presence, which opens the heart and helps tame the ego to act in humble ways. I am not a halachic Jew, meaning that I do not strictly follow the laws of Halacha, but I can see the value of this kind of teaching. Without adopting orthodoxy, we can still embrace a strong ethic of living that infuses the way we care for our body, our environment, and the other beings in our lives. We can create a consistent discipline in our spiritual practice step by step, such as slowly building a meditation practice, observing Shabbat by unplugging” for 24 hours, or simply committing to saying I love you” more often. The prophet Micah calls upon us to walk humbly with God.” Halacha, in Hebrew, means to walk.” To walk humbly with God is to move beyond the ego by following a disciplined spiritual practice that permeates all aspects of our lives, steeped in the intimate knowledge of Gods Presence moment to moment. May we, in this upcoming Jewish new year, be inspired to heed Micahs call and take the first steps of our walk,” our Halacha.10