“You must not remain indifferent”

Ki Tetzei By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Aug 28, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary | Social Justice

Guest commentator: Rabbi Marc Sack, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Tampa, Florida

My grandfather was a storyteller, not by profession, but by nature. He never lost an opportunity to tell my siblings and me about his journey to this country and the travails of his life. By profession, he was a fruit peddler. He had a large van-like truck that he loaded with fruits and vegetables every morning, going out to the neighborhoods in and around Hartford to hawk his goods. Sometimes, my grandfather hired teenagers to help him on the truck. In fact, I, myself, did this for a couple of summers. One of these helpers — this must have been in the early 1950s — was an African American teen. One summer morning, my grandfather and his helper finished loading the truck and stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. They sat down at a table, but the owner said that he would not serve the young man. The way my grandfather told it, he said to the owner, “If you won’t serve him, you won’t serve me,” and they got up and left the restaurant. My grandfather was by no means ideological about his convictions. He never talked about the evils of racism. He just knew that bigotry was wrong and that all people deserved to be treated with decency.

The Etz Hayim commentary states that the overarching theme of Ki Tetzei is “the irreducible dignity and worth of the human being” (1112). In terms of the dignity and worth of the human being, the parashahdelivers a clarion message. Chapter 22: 1-3 deals with hashavat aveidim, returning lost objects. The segment ends with words that go far beyond the subject at hand: lo tukhal l’hitaleim, “You must not remain indifferent” (22:3). The Jewish Study Bible says, “The law makes a moral appeal to conscience, but possesses no legal sanction” (415). With this declaration, the Torah is giving us less a law to follow, but more an approach to life: we must be oriented to being engaged, being not only aware of injustice, but having a desire and motivation to do something about it.

In his essay, “No Time for Neutrality,” Heschel wrote, “Most vividly the Jews feel that the world is not redeemed, that the present order of things is appalling. There is no anxiety in Judaism about personal salvation. What matters is universal salvation” (78). This is a shot across the bow of those religious tendencies that focus on personal fulfillment and growth to the diminishment of social action. Judaism is far more about relating to the other than it is about relating to the self.

My congregation, along with many others, sets aside a special day every year for community action. On that day, hundreds of congregants go to various social service agencies and do everything from picking fruit to playing with sick children, from weeding to cleaning up yards at shelters for abused women. These programs are good. They give people who might not otherwise do this kind of volunteer work the opportunity to make a donation of time to the community.

There are many reasons for providing community action programs. Among them is that they remind us just how lucky we are. A Catholic priest, who is a friend, tells me that the best way to take care of our problems is to get involved with someone else’s.

But the real motivation for community action is to bring Jews face-to-face with human suffering. It is to help them see and understand a world that is other than their own. And, through this exposure, we send a message — you must not remain indifferent. Our goal is to help Jews develop an inclination to become engaged, to be aware of injustice, and to be motivated to act regularly to alleviate it. One day a year is hardly enough. Our hope is that by means of these programs, we will help Jews focus on, and become engaged with, the needs of the other on a regular basis.

Heschel wrote, “…the fulfillment of a mitzvah is a way of entering into fellowship with the ultimate will. In giving ourselves to the goal, we feel how He is a partner to our acts” (“No Time for Neutrality,” 79). We do community action to enter into partnership with God. We share God’s awareness of and concern for the weak and vulnerable. Through our actions, we bring God’s presence to the world.

This hardly describes the level of my grandfather’s awareness that morning when he walked out of the restaurant. But, I believe he had a glimpse of God’s presence that day.

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Sack’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tetzei is made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.