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B'nei Mitzvah of the Week

Madison Brown & Cyrus Gerena

September 14, 2019

Parashat Ki Teitzei - Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

  • Moses reviews a wide variety of laws regarding family, animals, and property. (21:10–22:12)
  • Various civil and criminal laws are delineated, including those regarding sexual relationships, interaction with non-Israelites, loans, vows, and divorce. (22:13–24:5)
  • Laws of commerce pertaining to loans, fair wages, and proper weights and measures are given. (24:10–25:16)
  • The parashah concludes with the commandment to remember for all time the most heinous act committed against the Israelites—Amalek’s killing of the old, weak, and infirm after the Israelites left Egypt. (25:17–19)

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Madison's Interpretation

Welcome to our Shabbat service. I hope that everyone is enjoying sharing in the prayer with Cyrus and me on this morning. My Torah Portion is called “Ki Teitzei,” and is centered around the creation and enforcement of laws, mostly concerning war. At this moment in the Torah story, the Israelites have almost arrived at the promised land, and Moses decides that he should inform the congregation on the proper ways to handle certain events during a war, since they will probably be confronted with one as soon as they get there. The portion covers various subjects, such as trading and stealing, war conditions and customs, and even the specifics of divorce and marriage. It describes how G-d wants and expects you to act, whether you’re involved in war times, or just trying to protect your morals. There are a few laws in this portion that stood out to me because we behave so differently about those topics currently.

Specifically two commandments seem a little more “controversial” than the others. One is that “Men shall not wear a woman’s garment, and women shall not wear a man’s.” This sentence is a bit more interesting to me, because of the recent LGBTQ+ movement, and how accepting we are encouraging people to be. Cross-dressing is now a lot more mainstream, and is less frowned-upon. Another sentence that caught my eye explains that “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children be put to death for their parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime or sin.” This initially confused me, because earlier in a different list of commandments, G-d states that he will visit the “sins of the parents on the third and fourth generations.” This earlier statement becomes irrelevant once the other one is mentioned in the Torah, so I, among others, am curious why they were both included. In more modern culture, our laws have been firm about the requirement of evidence for prosecution, but if there is little to none, people may make assumptions about children based on their parent’s faults. This leads me to my Key Koshi, or key question: “How have we changed the laws in the Torah to fit our current society?” I chose this because our lives have changed greatly since Moses informed us of the required morals we must follow, and I wonder how largely we have edited them since.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut discusses the inheritance of guilt, and explains that children are “linked to their parents by ties, physical and social, from which they cannot free themselves...” He goes on to talk about how descendants are inseparable from their ancestors, and they aren’t necessarily guilty for their crimes, but they might still pay a price for their parent’s decision. I think what Rabbi Plaut is trying to say is that by warning parents that they might be punishing their future family, this could potentially prevent them from committing a crime entirely. I understand what the Rabbi is trying to convey, but I don’t think that people realistically think that way. If someone is about to steal a car, for example, I don’t think they are imagining how it will affect their children’s lives. Even if this does concern them in the moment, I highly doubt that they would abandon the crime just to save their offspring from some trouble. Maybe that’s why this law changed within the time the Torah was being written and edited.

Biblical scholar Adele Berlin interprets the ban of cross-dressing as an attempt to “maintain gender boundaries.” She goes on in detail about how mixtures are often forbidden in the Torah (ex. Meat and milk or wool and linen), and how much G-d seems to appreciate categories. I think Berlin is correct, because during biblical times, many different groups, such as genders, were separated for easier organization. This, like the previous commandment, drove me to question how we have edited or reinterpreted these laws to fit our current standards.

Nowadays, separating people into groups or categories is a lot less common. We as humans have become more accepting of all types of people, and so has our way of life. In earlier times, the men and women were separated on different sides of the temple, and some orthodox synagogues have remained that way. Growing up as a Reform Jew has really allowed me to enjoy a more modern religious experience, and I think it has helped to shape what I believe in as a young adult. As I become a Jewish woman, I will bring with me the tradition of my culture, and also what I have been able to add on to it.

With regard to both of these commandments, I have asked myself the same question, and have gotten a surprisingly similar answer. In modern times, we have changed the laws about the passed down guilt to become more fair and equal for all of our citizens. We have also become more accepting to all types of people, and we are able to approach them with a more open mind than our ancestors could. I think that both of these examples show that as we humans have changed over time, we have changed our laws and customs to give everyone a more pleasant, inclusive and affirming experience during their time on Earth.

Madison's Mitzvah Project

For my mitzvah project, I joined forces with two of my best friends, Caitlin Kaufmann and Dylan Joseph, to provide an experience to kids who can’t afford much. I met Caitlin and Dylan when I was about four years old, at Larchmont Temple Preschool. We clicked immediately and carried a special bond. When Dylan introduced Caitlin and me to an acting program known as StarKidz, we all feel in love with the hobby. Since acting, singing, and dancing has brought the three of us so much joy, we wanted to share that with other people.

The three of us and our AllStarz singing troupe performed and sang karaoke with kids from the Coachmen center, a place that provides temporary housing to adults and their children. At first, the kids were quiet and shy, but once we got a brother and sister pair to sing the first song, everyone was rushing to sign up. This experience really taught me about the importance of opportunity. Once the kids were able to try this new thing, they all really enjoyed it and didn’t want to leave.

Cyrus's Interpretation

Shabbat Shalom. Ki Teitze is a portion with a lot of commandments. Some of them are more influential than others in todays world. Among the major themes of Ki Teitze, one is marriage and divorce, and the other is the dangers of remaining indifferent.

Since I am no expert on marriage and divorce, I will keep this first part short. The Torah says it’s important to get married because love and commitment are very important in life and a Jewish household. Yet, the Talmudic rabbis said, “It is as hard to arrange and sustain a good marriage as it was for God to divide the Red Sea” So you see, us Jews are also trend setters, and realized from early on that divorce is sometimes inevitable. Just like there are a lot of rules in marriage, there are also rules in divorce. For instance, rules like remaining respectful of the other person as well as being cooperative; you can then both move on in your life. In my family, I have seen both successful marriages, and divorces- most of them, have resulted in positive things. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for divorce, my parents would not be married, and I would not have two big brothers, Niko and David! Thankfully my parents get mad at us kids more often than at each other.

Now, onto the “the dangers of remaining indifferent”. My Torah portion teaches that if our neighbor is in trouble, suffering, or just needs help we are not allowed to ignore it. Rashi, the rabbinic commentator puts it like this: “Do not hide your eye as if you did not see them”. This is something the Torah established long ago and has proven important throughout history as well as today. In recent history, Jews experienced the horrors of genocide in the Holocaust while most of the world remained indifferent. 6 million Jews were murdered, over 1 million were children. Just as important to note… 200,000 Roma, 9,000 homosexuals, 200,000 disabled, and thousands of Polish people; the evil didn’t stop with the Jews. What would have happened if the world did not remain indifferent? How many more Jews would exist in the world, if people spoke up?

The same goes for today. How many injustices could be avoided if we were all a little less indifferent? Racism is still alive. highest rates of poverty are amongst black and brown communities. Immigrants are being turned away because of the indifference of our government and the people who support it. Women are still paid less than men in not only sports but all fields. If you don’t have much money, you don’t get to see a doctor, or you could even go hungry. Around the world, people living in some countries do not have choices. Innocent people are living in fear and have to leave their homes because of violence, and none if it is their fault. But how many of us regularly stop to think about the challenges total strangers face? Most of us are busy and if our own needs are being met don’t lend a hand to others. Believe it or not, even I personally have to fight my natural urge to remain indifferent; like when it comes to helping my brother, Elian. In all seriousness, when I realize how easy it is to be indifferent in today’s world, it makes me think about what I should be doing to help, and I invite you to do the same.

So I ask again, what if we were all less indifferent? As Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize Winner, Holocaust Author and Teacher wrote “The opposite of love, is not hate. It is Indifference”. We can go beyond indifference, and MAKE a difference if we commit to awareness of others, and what they need.

Cyrus's Mitzvah Project

This brings me to my mitzvah project. It is not just indifference that effects humans, but also the earth and our communities. It is our responsibility as citizens and Jews to make our environments better, not just for us, but the generations to come. Through my mitzvah project I worked with the New York City Park department to help clean up several parks throughout the burrows of New York City. In our wealthy Westchester communities, this is not something I would normally think about, never mind help to fix. The first day I volunteered with my dad at a park very close to the neighborhood he grew up in, Spanish Harlem. I had to scrape the old rust and paint off the walls of the bathroom, and then prime and paint them. I might mention it was 97 degrees and I ended up drinking 2 liters of water. Surprisingly I didn’t even want soda or Gatorade! Ki Teitze reminds us being a Jew means doing mitzvahs for others without expecting anything in return. It’s funny though. While I was doing for others, I DID gain something in return. I surprised myself by feeling joy and pride! For those people who know me best, that might surprise you too!


Sun, September 15 2019 15 Elul 5779