Weekly D’var: Ki Teitzei

by | Sep 9, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

Deuteronomy 23 :22 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt;  23 whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.  24 You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.

This week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, is one of those that is so incredibly filled with laws and teachings that, to choose a topic for a drash, it feels to me as if I’m doing a disservice, both to the text itself and to those who might read this. With that in mind, do me a favour and give this week’s parasha a read and see what jumps out at you; whether you’re inspired or angered or confused, or whatever really, give this week’s text some time and think about it, or reach out and talk about it with me or with someone else that you trust.

The topics in this week’s parasha range from the seemingly mundane (laws regarding safety, property, and prohibited mixtures) to the much more intense laws surrounding war, slavery, kidnapping, and sexual offences. I want to take a moment here to talk about vows, a topic that may seem mundane, but one that can have a serious impact when undertaken lightly.

The above quoted verses expand upon a familiar line from the beginning of Parashat Matot, which states, “If one makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on themselves, they shall not break their pledge, but must carry out all that has crossed their lips.” (Numbers 30:3), adding to it some significant points. In this week’s parasha, we are directed not merely to keep the vows we make to God, but to ensure that we do not delay our fulfillment of such vows as we will incur guilt.

Our tradition has a complicated relationship with vows and oaths.  Vows are mentioned a number of times throughout the Torah and, in fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the topic (Nedarim), but we are given to understand not to undertake them lightly. In fact, we are reminded this week that we need not take them at all, stating, “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing”. Vows and oaths, as the tradition understands them, are not simply intentions that we have for our behaviour, but specific statements, invoking the name of God, typically to abstain from a particular behaviour or activity. We should be no less flippant in our personal intentions and commitments.

At the beginning of the year, we often make of point of setting goals and committing to particular outcomes and, of course, there is nothing wrong with making commitments to ourselves; however, I would encourage us to be informed by this parsha when thinking about these commitments.  We are enjoined by Moses in these verses to fulfill our promises as soon as possible.  In order to do so, we must ensure that our commitments are reasonable. It is not uncommon to say to oneself that “I will always do” one thing or “I will never do” this other thing, but when we use this absolute language, we are being unrealistic and potentially endangering the very quality that we are attempting to safeguard in making the commitment. These personal commitments and promises may not hold the status of vows as defined by our tradition, but the consequences felt in failing to uphold them can be devastating. For someone beginning a new endeavour or taking up a potentially beneficial practice, there is a tendency to fall into all or nothing thinking. Many people will try to take on the full practice or all of the rules at one time only to find it overwhelming. Many years ago, when I first tried to take on Shabbat observance, as soon as I made a mistake I would either be overcome with guilt or simply give up for the rest of the day, reverting to old ways. Happily for me, my rabbi recognized my frustration and anxiety and encouraged me to take things more slowly, building up my observance over time, making my goal not perfection, but progress.

The third verse in the above quoted passage, Deuteronomy 23:24, is generally taken as a continuation on the theme of vows and most of our medieval commentators ensure us that “what goes out from your lips” is necessarily a vow of some kind that we must “keep” or “guard”.  Refreshingly, the Sefat Emet (19th c. Rabbi and Commentator, Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) explains this verse on its own, saying that what “comes out as we open our mouths” is “the breath and the inward self”.  He states that it is through the mitzvah of study that we are able to guard this inner breath, which carries in it “the very root of a person’s life”, and goes on to say that this guarding “stands at the root of all one’s deeds”, for as our rabbis taught (Kiddushin 40b), study leads to action.

As much as we can hope to always be on guard, we all know that we will, at times, fail to do so.  Our tradition has always accepted this, going so far as to teach that teshuvah, return or repentance,  preceded creation.  As we begin this new school year and prepare for the High Holidays, the Sefat Emet’s teaching on this verse remind me of the words of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (early 20th century Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine), who described teshuvah as a return to one’s self, to the root of one’s soul.  Through the words of these teachers, we understand that we need not despair or fall into guilt over our failings.  When I miss the mark or fail to reach my own lofty goals, I can return to myself and to the root of my soul; I can reevaluate my goals and move forward, acknowledging my progress in gratitude and free of guilt.

This Passover, help Hillel fortify Jewish students’ identities

This Passover, help Hillel fortify Jewish students’ identities

The night before the Children of Israel’s departure from Egypt is referred to as leil shimurim, often translated as a “night of vigil.”  Rav Nahman and subsequent scholars interpret this phrase, which appears nowhere else in the Tanakh, as a time of divine protection. These scholars conclude the night when Passover begins is one of safety – one on which no harm can come to the Jewish people.

In the face of rising antisemitism, isolation, extremism, and other threats to Jews individually and collectively, we are fortunate that there are additional ways and times for seeking security and comfort.  Building and sustaining strong, inclusive, and welcoming Jewish communities on campus enables Jewish students to experience a sense of belonging with their peers, bolster their leadership skills, advocate for themselves, and chart their own Jewish journeys.  Indeed,  Hillel Ontario is on track for a record-breaking year, in which we will engage more than 3,500 Jewish students. Leil shimurim might be just one night, but together, we can fortify emerging adults’ Jewish identities and provide spaces in which they prepare to take on leadership roles after graduation.

As we head into Passover, we are grateful for all of the contributions you’ve made in support of Jewish student life in Ontario.  Your generosity allows us to confront antisemitism, instill a sense of joy, pride, and resilience in Jewish students, and empower the next generation of Jewish leaders.  

While we’re proud of our success, more work remains to provide for our universities’ 10,000 Jewish students who remain unengaged with Jewish campus life in Ontario.  In conjunction with your observance of the upcoming holiday, please consider a gift to Hillel Ontario so we can continue our work and provide additional openings for connection with Jewish life, learning, and Israel.

Chag sameach,

Seth Goren
CEO, Hillel Ontario

Weekly D’var: Tzav

Weekly D’var: Tzav

In this week’s parasha, Tzav, focuses on the laws of sacrifices and priestly duties. The emphasis is on the instructions given to the priests regarding the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, the sin offerings, and the guilt offerings. These offerings were an essential part of the religious practices of the Israelites, and they were intended to symbolize the people’s devotion to God.

As I reflect on this chapter, I am struck by the idea of sacrifice. In today’s world, sacrifice is often viewed negatively. We are taught to prioritize our own needs and desires, and sacrificing them for the sake of others or for a greater cause is often seen as a burden. However, the concept of sacrifice in this chapter of the Torah is different. It is not seen as a burden or a punishment, but rather as a means of expressing devotion and gratitude.

In Tzav, the burnt offering is described as a “pleasing aroma to the Lord”. The idea of a pleasing aroma suggests that the sacrifice is not just a physical act, but also a spiritual one. It is an offering of the heart, a way of expressing love and gratitude to God. As I look around the world today, I see many examples of sacrifice that are motivated by love and gratitude. Healthcare workers, for example, have been sacrificing their own safety and well-being to care for those who are sick during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are not doing this because they are being forced to, but because they feel a sense of duty and devotion to their patients. Similarly, many people have been sacrificing their own comfort and convenience to protect the environment. They are making changes to their lifestyles, such as reducing their energy consumption or using public transportation instead of driving, because they recognize the importance of preserving the planet for future generations. Making sacrifices to show devotion and gratitude is also a way of showing appreciation for the things that we have been given, and a way of giving back to the world.\

As I read this chapter, I am also intrigued by the idea of atonement. The sin offering and the guilt offering were both intended to provide a way for the people to seek forgiveness for their sins. In our modern world, forgiveness and atonement are often difficult to come by. We live in a culture that values punishment and retribution over forgiveness and reconciliation. However, the idea of atonement in this text suggests that forgiveness is possible, even for the most serious of offenses. It requires a willingness to acknowledge our mistakes, to take responsibility for our actions, and to make amends.

In today’s Jewish community, the lessons of Tzav continue to be relevant. The act of sacrifice, whether it be in the form of volunteering, making charitable donations, or participating in community service, is still seen as a way to connect with God and express gratitude for the blessings of life. Similarly, seeking forgiveness and atonement remains a central tenet of Jewish faith and practice. Finally, the concept of sacrifice is particularly relevant during Jewish holidays and festivals, such as Passover and Yom Kippur. During these occasions, we make offerings and engage in rituals that are intended to demonstrate our devotion to God and their commitment to living a righteous life

As I reflect on this parasha, the concepts of sacrifice and atonement may seem outdated or irrelevant in our modern world, but they still have a powerful message to teach us. By sacrificing for others and seeking forgiveness for our mistakes, we can show our love and devotion to the world around us and ultimately make the world a better place to live.

Emily Green
Student, Western Hillel