Parsha of the week

Ki Tetzei ("When you go")

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

* Seventy-four of the Torah's 613 commandments (mitzvot) are in the Parshah of Ki Teitzei, more than any other Torah portion.

* Recounted are judicial procedures and penalties for adultery, for the rape or seduction of an unmarried girl, and for a husband who falsely accuses his wife of infidelity.

* Ki Tetzei also includes laws governing the purity and the treatment of those who work for you; of debtors; charging interest on a loan, and on divorce.

* Ki Teitzei concludes with the obligation to remember "what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt,' which informs us for millennia about our enemies.

One of the many lessons that I try to teach our B'nai Mitzvah candidates is one of kindness to animals, which is outlined in this parashah. Biblical law was very concerned about the treatment of animals. Deut. 22:10 forbids the yoking of a donkey with an ox. These two animals differ greatly in size and strength and it would be cruel to yoke the weaker donkey with the stronger ox. In addition, Deut. 22:6-7 states that if one chances upon a bird with its eggs, one shall not take the mother bird along with the young. It is about sympathy and the sacredness of the parental relationship. The mother is sacred because she is a mother. But, if she is sent away, and does not see her young ones taken, she does not feel as much pain. Concern for the feelings of animals is a concept that really resonates with many, and we hope that ethical treatment of animals is part of our covenant with God to make the world a better place.

Additional Limud (Learning)

High Holy Day Liturgy: U'netaneh Tokef/B'rosh Hashana

A long time ago, before I was even considering taking the path of Jewish songwriter, cantor or rabbi, I remember asking at my Hillel Rabbi at the University of Texas what the high holy days were all about. As I recall, he quoted the refrain from the well-known ominous prayers Unetaneh Tokef/B'rosh Hashana:

On Rosh Hashanah this is written; and on Yom Kippur, this is sealed: "Who will live and who will die?"

"But," he went on, "between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, teshuvah, (returning to a better path); t'fillah (earnest prayer); and tzedakah (justice or righteousness) can still make a difference."

A Jewish skeptic at the time, I was appalled. The idea that our fate for the coming year is being determined right now, and that we have only a few hours to make it better should be appalling to us all, but this prayer is revered with dead seriousness. The prayer goes on to describe, in detail, how we might die in the year to come.

Many have, of course "reconstructed" these words. My colleague, Mark Nazimova, sent around an email quoting a friend's "modern" version of this:

"On Rosh Hashanah God reviews the contents of the great Hard Drive of life, deciding which records to update, and which to delete...and on Yom Kippur, those files are closed and backed up until next year."

Cute, but no improvement.

Over the years I have come to love singing Unetaneh Tokeif and B'rosh Hashana. "Let us declare the power of this day..." And I finally figured out a way that I could interpret it for myself. Are these words a scare tactic? Maybe. But, at this time of year, I think we are meant to scare ourselves. One might think that it is predetermined "how many pass on, how many shall thrive; who shall live and who shall die;" and so on. But in reality it is our own actions, day in and day out, every day of the year, that decide what kind of a life we will have. We get to choose - it's up to us.

Here is Leonard Cohen's "Who By Fire?" a famous English interpretation of Unetaneh Tokef/B'rosh Hashana:

Rabbi Robbi Sherwin