A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/25/18 –
This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more laws than any other portion in the Torah. The laws cover a vast variety of topics, from proper ethics in business to adulterous relationships, to the importance of treating the poor and marginalized with respect and dignity. All told there are 27 positive commandments in the portion, and 47 negative commandments, for a grand total of 74.
And in that long list of commandments there are a couple of my favorites, maybe not exactly what you would expect, but I would like to share them with you this morning, and then try to explain why I find them so compelling. These come from the beginning of Deuteronomy chapter 22, where the text reads as follows: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too with anything that your fellow loses and you find – you must not remain indifferent.”
There is a difficulty in the passage that comes from one of the key Hebrew words. Its repeated twice, and is clearly understood as being important by the text, but not fully clear in terms of what it means. The word is והתעלמת. In modern Hebrew it means to disregard or ignore something, and that is the way the translator in our Humash is working with the word – and so our translation says, when you see this ox, or sheep, or object, and you know it isn’t yours – והתעלמת – don’t ignore it, don’t remain indifferent, you have to do something about it. And our translator is really working with the commentary of the great sage Rashi, who says the word והתעלמת means ‘don’t close your eyes, pretending the thing isn’t there.’
And what I love about this is the psychology of these verses. The Torah knows me better than I know myself! The Torah knows when a difficult or challenging or unpleasant circumstance confronts me, I might have a tendency to look the other way, or pretend the thing just isn’t there and walk right on by. And so the Torah reinforces its commands about returning these lost objects by telling me והתעלמת!! Don’t ignore it! Instead, walk towards it, take care of it, confront it if you need to.
Many of you know that the rabbinate is a second career for me. Before I began rabbinical school I worked for four years as a sort of psychiatric social worker at a place called the Genesis Club, a psychiatric rehab program in the Boston area. Our mission was to help people who were struggling with major psychiatric illness – like manic-depression or schizophrenia – to transition from the state hospital back out into the community.
I carried a case load that was fo all intents and purposes randomly assigned. There was a young man named Jim, who was as sweet as they come, and before he became sick could throw a 90 mile an hour fastball, a true major league prospect. There was an older gentleman named Robert who had a brilliant mind, was a trained physicist, but because of his illness had become homeless and was struggling to put his life back together. And the list could go on and on, each person I worked with had their own compelling story, their own challenges and struggles, and their own hopes and expectations and goals. I was very fond of those people and I loved that job, and felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a source of support for them as they worked so hard to have the kind of lives any of us hope to have.
But there was one young man that I worked with with whom I struggled terribly. I was at the time 24, and he was younger than I, big and strong, very aggressive, and prone to intense outbursts where he would scream and yell, throw things, and although I never saw him strike another person, it always seemed like he was just on the edge of doing that. I was scared of him, A, and B, virtually every interaction with him was unpleasant. So I came up with a coping strategy – I would avoid this young man at all costs.
And so it went. If I came up to the top of the steps, and saw him down the hallway, I would quickly retreat and head back downstairs. If I entered the lunch room, and he was there, I would eat in some other area or go out to lunch. I was supposed to meet with him on a weekly basis, but I managed to work it out so that we only met every other week, or maybe even every third week. On the one hand I felt guilty about it, but on the other hand it was much easier, as it so often is, to take the easy way out.
At a certain point my boss called me into his office. He asked me specifically about the young man, how was my work going with him, how was he doing, was he making any progress? After hemming and hawing for a moment or two I fessed up, and told my boss that I was so uncomfortable, and frankly so scared of the guy, that I really didn’t want to deal with him, and so I had in essence been shirking my duties. And my boss said something that has stayed with me all these years – that was almost 30 years ago – and that I work very hard to keep in mind in my day to day interactions with others. He said ‘oftentimes the people who are the hardest to deal with are the people who actually need you the most.’ I walked out of his office, found the young man, and walked right up to him – ‘lets talk,’ I said, and we did. It wasn’t easy, but at least I knew it was right.
I said moment ago that that word from the Torah text – what is it? והתעלמת – is tricky to translate, and in our Humash the translator understands it as ‘to not ignore’ something. Applying the verse to my story of the young man, it would be to not ignore him, to not close my eyes to him – we might say, to truly see him. And that was what I tried to do, after the conversation with my boss.
But there is another way to understand the word from the verse, and I’d like to share it with you before I wrap up. There is another Humash in my office where that word – והתעלמת – is translated as ‘do not hide yourself.’ So the end of the verse would read ‘you will return any lost object of your brother that you find – do not hide from yourself!’ What exactly does that mean?!
And the way I’ve come to understand it is this: when you hide from others, when you ignore the responsibilities that you have to help others, to be there for them, to give them support and care – when you pretend they aren’t there, when you allow them to disappear – there is a part of you that disappears as well. We might say it like this: when you hide from others you are hiding from yourself as well – from who you are supposed to be, from who you have the potential to be, from who God wants you to be.
It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be quite hard. My interactions with the young man were always challenging, and that never changed. But in walking towards him instead of walking away I was at least there for him, and I think on some level he knew that, because so many other people had walked away from him in his life. And in walking towards him, in truly seeing him, in those challenging conversations and difficult moments, I also was growing and learning, and instead of hiding from myself, I came to a deeper understanding both who I truly was and of who I should strive to be.