Parshat Ki Tetze: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19; Isaiah 54:1-10
Human dignity has always been a central concern of the Torah and the Jewish tradition.
The Torah portion this week gives us several examples of protections that were provided for people who were at a disadvantage in ancient societies such as the poor, the resident alien, widows, orphans and others.
Specifically, in chapter 24 of Deuteronomy, we read that when a person wants to collect on a loan from another that he may not enter a house to seize the pledge; if you are holding his/her pledge you must return it in a timely manner. You are not allowed to abuse a needy or destitute laborer. We should not subvert the rights of the widow, the orphan or the stranger in our midst. The Torah understands that how we treat those who are at a disadvantage compared to the rest of society matters greatly.
This idea is epitomized by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.”
The ideas expressed by the Torah and by Rabbi Heschel were incorporated into the lives of some of our greatest leaders. The Mishnah (Bava Kamma) tells us the following story about a dispute before the great Rabbi Akiva. It concerns the incident when a man uncovered a woman’s head in public, which was considered a way of shaming a woman at that time. The woman brought the case before Rabbi Akiva, who ruled the man should pay the woman 400 zuzim, a significant sum. The offender asked for an opportunity to prove his innocence in the case and proceeded to place a broken jug of oil at the entrance to the woman’s courtyard along with two people to serve as witnesses. The woman came out, found the oil, and in public uncovered her head and put the oil on her head [to anoint her hair]. On the basis of this, the man asked Rabbi Akiva to reverse his ruling, but Rabbi Akiva refused to do so saying, “You have not said anything to convince me. If a person wounds himself, even though he is not allowed to do so, he is exempt; if others wounded him, they are liable.”
Rabbi Akiva understood the importance, the intrinsic value of every human being; he understood, as Rabbi Heschel said, “that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme”.
This message is equally relevant in our society. All too often we hear in the arena of public debate comments that denigrate or marginalize minorities, the poor and others who are at a disadvantage in our society. These comments go against the very essence of the Jewish tradition and should not be given currency.
We should and can have vigorous debates about how to address the needs of our society while still remembering that those we disagree with, those who are not like us, and those affected by the legislation and policies we debate, stand, as Rabbi Heschel said, “for something supreme.
Rabbi Robert Gamer is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.