The unsettling and upsetting national and world events of the past few weeks have threatened my equilibrium and that of many of my congregants and acquaintances. In times like these, I approach Torah seeking solace and understanding and some nugget of wisdom. I am seldom disappointed, and if I am, I know it is because I did not turn and turn the Torah, as Ben Bag Bag so famously suggested long ago.
When viewing the YouTube clip of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., chanting “Jew will not replace us,” I actually cried. How can these people have so much hate in their heart? Some of those who talked to me about their own impressions also expressed fear of being a Jew, especially if he/she wore external expressions of their Judaism. How can Torah inform our sadness, fear and revulsion?
Parshat Ki Tetse covers a wide range of topics and diverse laws. Ki tetse, which translates as “when you take,” refers to “taking the field” and winning a battle with the Hebrews’ enemies. When women are taken as the spoils of war, elaborate laws are given in Ki Tetse to ensure they are treated with dignity. The dignity of many other groups of people and beasts is mandated in this portion as well. If a man is found guilty of a capital offense and executed by stoning, his body must be buried by sunset. Oxen or sheep that have gone astray must be returned to their owner, and we are mandated to help a beast that has “fallen by the road.”
We are obligated to let the poor glean our fields and orchards and must always return by sundown a poor man’s cloak that he has offered as the pledge for a loan. A needy laborer must be given his wages on the same day. In a final, though not exhaustive example, an ox and donkey may not be yoked together for plowing, as they are unequal in strength. Because we are created b’zelem Elohim, in the image of God, we are commanded to see the dignity of all of God’s creation and treat them accordingly.
Rabbi Edward Feinstein has this to say about Ki Tetse. “[These laws] speak not to the lowest in us, but to the highest. ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy’ (Lev. 19:2). The purpose of law in the Torah is to cultivate the holy, the compassionate, the just and the sensitive within us — to cultivate the divine within us.”
If we are to follow the precepts put forth in this Torah portion, we will find ourselves searching for the divine spark in the messengers of hate that marched in Charlottesville. Perhaps the best that we can do is not to vilify them as they have vilified African-Americans and Jews. This is not an easy task. Nor does it address the very real danger of threats made by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How are we to find a balance?
It is perhaps one of the hardest concepts we will be called on to do as Jews and as moral people. Perhaps the timing is fortuitous, as we are now in the month of Elul, when our thoughts about our own character take an introspective turn. As an example, we can look to the reactions of the family member of a victim in another hate crime by a white supremacist. In 2015 in Charleston, S.C., Nadine Collier, daughter of shooting victim Ethel Lance at the Emanuel Church massacre, publicly forgave the perpetrator, Dylann Roof. As you may remember, he is a white supremacist who hoped to spark a race war with his killing of nine members of the church’s Bible study group. Instead, his actions led to the beginning of the movement to remove statues glorifying the Civil War from public spaces. Said Alana Simmons, granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons, “Hate won’t win. Everyone’s plea for your [Roof’s] soul is proof that they [the victims] lived in love and their legacies live in love.”
I also heard the following story on a public radio station the morning of the day I had planned to start writing this d’var Torah. During World War II, Hans von Dohnanyi, father of famed conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, was a member of the German resistance who personally saved many Jews and was part of a plot to bomb Hitler’s plane. He was arrested in 1943, continually tortured and executed shortly before the end of the war in 1945. During his imprisonment, he was allowed to correspond with the family, and his letters are a great treasure to them. Only recently has Christoph broken his silence about the war years, and his father’s story has just been published in the book, “No Ordinary Men.” In it is found the following advice from Hans to his family, written from his prison cell: “Don’t carry hate in your heart … don’t fill your souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust.”
As a moral people, we can participate in counter-protests that acknowledge that ours are communities where hate is not welcome. We can be vigilant and stand up to hateful rhetoric and ideas. However, we are still commanded to look for the divine spark in all of God’s creations, as clearly indicated in this week’s parsha, Ki Tetse. PJC
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.