“For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, So I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you. For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, But my loyalty shall never move from you, nor My covenant of friendship be shaken —said the Eternal, who takes you back in love.”
Struggling as we are with fires and floods, heat waves and other devastating natural disasters all around the world, these words from the Haftarah for Parashat Ki Tezei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) caught my attention this year. God has promised never again to destroy the world, but what can our portion teach us about our own propensity to destroy our earthly home?
Three verses stood out for me among the 74 commandments found in this week’s portion, the most in any Torah portion. The first, 22:3 speaks about our obligation not to try and worm our way out of the mitzvah of returning lost property. The second, 22:6-7 concerns sparing the mother bird when taking eggs from the nest. And finally, the third, 24:16, insists, in conflict with other familiar Biblical texts, that parents not be prosecuted for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents.
The key to the first commandment is found in the words lo l’hitalem, translated, “do not ignore”, “do not hide yourself”, or as Rashi explains: “you must nor cover your eyes pretending not to see it.” The commandment tells us we cannot pretend not to have seen. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) this commandment is brought into the discussion of our obligation to save our neighbor from various forms of danger.
Is this not our present challenge, not to hide from the reality of what is happening to our planet, as unfortunately many of us, good people, do today. Overwhelmed by the threat of global climate change and by its increasing impact on our current lives, we turn away and hide ourselves from facing its true implications. But this commandment reminds us, even when it is not what we want to do, even if it comes at some cost to us, some loss of convenience or comfort, still it is our obligation.
There is a great deal of commentary on the second verse I’ve chosen, with its commandment to send off the mother bird when taking eggs or goslings from her nest. It is understood by some as reflecting compassion for the mother bird, and by others as being necessary to our own character development. In addition, we have come to realize that sustaining animal species is encouraging creation to exist as fully as possible. God’s compassion for animal life is found in many places within our tradition. Perhaps at this time of year, we think especially of the conclusion of the Book of Jonah, with its reference to the “much cattle” for which God is concerned. As Rav Kook noted in discussing the commandment to Adam to rule over the natural world: (there was) “no intention that humankind would stage a dictatorship… (out of) a one-sided selfish desire to benefit from creation.”
The commandment to spare the mother bird is one of just three which offer us the reward of long life and faring well. We are perhaps most familiar with this promise in the context of honoring parents, where it is found in the Ten Commandments; but it also occurs in the commandment concerning fair weights and measures. What could these three have in common? For me, these are a three-legged stool. To create a sustainable existence, we need intergenerational respect and responsibility, ethical behavior in commerce, and care for individual non-human species.
Finally, while the Ten Commandments speaks of “God visiting the sins of the parents on their children until the third or fourth generation”, we find in this week’s Torah portion, a commandment more in tune with Ezekiel’s pronouncement that only the one who sins will die: A child won’t bear a parent’s guilt, and a parent won’t bear a child’s guilt (Ezekiel 18:20). Later generations reconciled these verses explaining that a human court may not do what God can do. Deuteronomy is offering a legal system, but the Ten Commandments talks to us of natural consequences. The consequences of actions by parents and grandparents, by past generations, are real. They are unfortunately what our children and grandchildren are facing today and will face well into the future, even if we are able to act now with restraint and wisdom.
As many know from our Shabbat morning service, a prayer we read together from the Mishnah, “These are the obligations without measure, of which a person enjoys the fruit in this world, while the principal remains in the world to come” (Mishnah Peah 1:1). This introduction reminds us that taking a short-term approach is foolish; that we must in this and in all things consider a longer horizon. Were this long-term approach baked into all our decision making we may not be in the grave danger our world is in today.
We are in the final days of the month of Elul where we are reminded that we cannot escape the consequences of our past actions and must truly begin the work of serious teshuvah, of change before it is too late.