Peter J. Rubinstein | September 6, 2003
Not to harp on the obvious, but the summer is over. It seems like Labor Day, which was just this week, was long ago. No matter how many years it has been since we went to school, the academic year seems to beat out the rhythm of the year. The school holidays and vacations feel like the times to slow down or take vacation and no matter how hard we may work during the summer, it’s still the summer, and it holds the feel of a slower pace, like we should be on vacation, even if we aren’t.
Well, for our children, it’s back to school. For others, the summer vacation is over. Work is at full pace again, and for Jews, well, it’s the season. The High Holidays are approaching. The curtain is about to open on another year, 5764. We gear ourselves up for the big days, for while being Jewish is an intrinsic part of our lives throughout the year, our focus on the meaning of our lives, the impact of our behavior, our place in the world and in history, comes to the fore now.
This month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays, is by both traditional practice and natural mood a time for reflection. I suspect that even as we busy ourselves with buying school supplies, setting social calendars, and making arrangements for the holidays, each of us is sublimely alert to the passage of time and the faults and failures as well as the joys and accomplishments in our own lives, now and in the past.
This is the season for reflection. And to make the case, the Torah portions at the end of the annual cycle of readings echo the commandments and set a measure for our behavior and our deeds. This portion this week, Ki Teitzei, comprises a spectrum of legislation governing the treatment of family, spouses, and children, telling us how to behave in conflict and what our responsibilities are to others, both rich and poor, the powerful and weak, in our society.
But that is not all that we learn from this parashah. The portion is also about aspects of Creation other than human interchange, which often we would not consider as significant in determining the quality of our moral fiber. We are told how to deal with animals. We read the legislation sparing the mother bird. In another verse we read, “If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.” This is not the first time the matter of a fallen animal is raised. Previously, we were told to help any animal that has fallen under the weight of its burden, even if it belongs to our enemy.
The Torah did not countenance disregard to any part of Creation.
Kindness to animals was no less significant than obedience of the Ten Commandments. Our guardianship of crops and the land and fruit trees was mandated even in the midst of war.
Though we humans have been given extraordinary power over Creation, which includes an equally unique responsibility, we cannot be blind or deaf to any small part of what happens on this earth.
Our teachers understood that life was often lived and morality typically shaped out of sight, when no one else was around, when there was no one we needed or wanted to impress.
No matter how beautiful a building’s design or architecture, it will collapse under its own weight if any rivet is left out, if a weakened beam is fabricated, if the cement in the structural joints is poorly applied. Life, like buildings, is in the details.
Our moral stature is not defined only by our attitudes to the big missions of social justice, matters of war and peace, or civil liberties and social welfare. Our moral fiber is developed and honed in the thousands of small choices we make in the shadows when no one else may be looking. We make a moral choice in deciding whether to give our seat on a bus to an elderly man or woman who may need it more than we. We demonstrate the quality of moral fiber when we decide whether to help a burdened parent trying to carry both her child and the stroller up the subway stairs. We define ourselves by whether we offer help to a person obviously bewildered by our city or whether we offer an arm or a hand to someone physically impaired needing help crossing the street.
Life is in the details and we define our moral standard in all the small decisions we make every day.
Sometimes we lose sight of the countless chances we have to do right, to make a difference, to foster a better life, a better Creation. But during these weeks leading to Rosh HaShanah, we are reminded of attention to detail, the way in which we will be measured not alone by the banners we wave for social justice, but whether we behave socially justly. We are all quite capable of talking the ethical talk, but the true measure of how kind or decent we are will be in the way we behave to one other person whose life will be even a bit better, even for an instant, if we behave well toward them.
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