Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 16 September 2016
What does the Liberal Rabbi do when his son’s Bar Mitzvah falls on the sedrah that according to Maimonides’ enumeration contains no less that 72 positive and negative commandments: Do you go pious and cram in as many statutes as possible without skipping verses or does one cut out legislation regarding adultery, rape and violations of marriage?
Now as a Rabbi of a few years experience I do not shy away from more difficult sections of the Torah. Last Shabbat I focused on a bizarre ritual that includes the beheading of a heifer and in past years I have read and expounded on the passages in Ki Tetze regarding legal obligations toward female captives on the battlefield or sexual im/morality.
Yet for my Bar Mitzvah I recall that we did do a ‘cut and paste’ job to avoid such passages for which I was grateful. We still had plenty of material to choose from. Naturally, we included the laws regarding a rebellious son – perhaps scaring me into following my father’s footsteps – and the laws restricting punishment to the responsible individual, i.e. not to a parent for a child’s crime and vice versa! We could not miss out the classics such as those about birds nests, roofs, and a few other moral highs.
What I do not recollect is whether the parashah on my Bar Mitzvah included the source texts for what has become a moral pillar to my lifestyle: lo tuchal l’hitalaym – ‘Do not remain indifferent’ (Deut 22:1-4).
In the context (see also Exodus 23:4-5), it concerns moral duties toward neighbours – whether you like them or not – especially with regard to their lost property. However, the fact that there is no accompanying legal sanction suggests that the true import of lo tuchal l’hitalaym is as Alshikh (C. 16, Safed) notes: Its educational value and the moral at its foundation.
His exposition of the repeated phrase ‘to surely return it’ – hashev t’shivenu, that leads in to the principle of lo tuchal l’hitalaym is that when one responds, once, twice, three times, then the act of going out of one’s way to help another becomes habitual.
Sometimes I get utterly confused by the plethora of opportunities to act in society around us. I feel guilty when I cannot respond to every call to support a refugee or refugees in general. I would love to open my house up and create a tent city in my garden and provide food to all in need, foster all children in need of a safe and nurturing home and, and, and…
Lo tuchal l’hitalaym is not about making us feel guilty or saying we must do everything. It is rather an attitude to life. My family groans when I stop and pick up another piece of litter and smile at everyone because you do not know who is having a bad day or has not spoken to anyone and that smile has made their day. But that is my lo tuchal l’hitalaym my way of paying attention to little things as often as I can. Perhaps I did it 3 times and now it is habitual.
Lo tuchal l’hitalaym is no magic wand and in any case I do not know the magic words and have no slight of hand; but it is a foundation on which to build a moral life. Seemingly innocuous but immensely powerful it nags at us until we act on the small things in life but who knows how many times it will lead us to affective action on some of the big things in life as knowing we cannot change the while world, it lights a spark in a certain but habitual moment, to change someone’s world.
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