Posted on August 28, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
This week’s Torah portion contains more laws than any other parashah in the Torah – 72, to be exact. The purpose was not to provide a code that the average Israelite would carry around to consult at any given moment; rather, it was to cultivate a certain sensibility, awareness, and attitude.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the prescription for when one encounters the stray animal of one’s neighbor. In a society that lacks moral refinement one might well ignore it, thinking, “Not my ox, not my problem.”
The Torah, however, envisions a world in which each person sees such a situation as if he or she were the owner of the lost animal and imagines what she or he would hope and wish for in that moment.
The Torah speaks for all of us in offering the general instruction that we must not be indifferent. We should go out of our way to return the animal to its owner. We should be kind and caring people who instinctively know what is right, and then act deliberately and habitually.
Having such a code and committing to live by it is no small thing. Where such an ethos prevails, people feel safe and secure, confident that they can go about their daily lives knowing that they are not alone – that they live in a web of interdependence and shared responsibility for one another and the common good. This is the practical result of loving one’s neighbor as oneself – that one looks upon one’s fellow and sees oneself, not one who is “other.”
America today is at a crossroads. Covid-19 is testing our resolve to be the kind of caring society the Torah envisions. At stake is not whether we will look after each other’s property, but whether we will protect one another from infection. It is a test we are failing as we have declared certain people “essential,” while, in practice, making them expendable. It is a test we are failing as we allow people of color and the poor to be treated as less than.
My parent’s generation was one that embodied the spirit of love and mutual responsibility of which the Torah speaks – the sense of civic duty that made America strong and great. My father, like so many others, eagerly volunteered to go to war overseas to fight for his country, willingly putting his life on the line for the triumph of good over evil. The broad spread of Covid-19 has tragically revealed the waning of this ethic of duty and responsibility. And its underlying cause is the malady of indifference.
Our parashah opens with the words Ki teitzei la- milchamah, “When you go out to war…” A Chassidic commentary notes that this statement is cast in the singular and asks what kind of a war does one go out to as an individual? It is the war against one’s yetzer ha-ra, one’s selfish and evil impulse, says the rebbe.
Today we are at war. Not with some foreign adversary nor a novel coronavirus. It is a battle that is fought not with guns but with masks; not with hand-to-hand combat, but by washing our hands; not by going out, but by staying in; and not overseas, but in the human heart. As the Torah says, God has placed before us “life and death, blessing and curse… choose life,” says God, “that you and your descendants may live.” We must choose life if we and our neighbors are to live, and we must do it now. We must not be indifferent.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck