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Rabbi's Week In Review - 8/16/2021

08/16/2021 04:34:25 PM


Entering the month of Elul — a time for great introspection and personal reflection leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — we are experiencing a time of unprecedented turmoil. The resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic via the delta variant has been a setback, as we have been so looking forward to being back in physical space together. Wearing masks and putting hugging on the back burner leave us detached from our need for connecting in community. 

Polarization and animosity are pervasive around the proper response to the pandemic, notwithstanding that in our Jewish world, Pikuah Nefesh, sanctity of human life, should dictate the seemingly obvious response that we take every measure possible to save human lives.   

Other issues wherein we never would have anticipated rancorous disagreement — e.g., democracy — leave our country and our world more divided than ever. We can no longer find common ground on what is factual and what is real. A summer in which wildfires in Canada and the West Coast not only yield catastrophic damage but also weeks of smoky haze here in Kansas City lead us all to wonder about the future of our planet.

A response to all of this has been to hunker down, to hide from the news and disengage from this calamitous environment. To the extent that I can regress into this response and still function in my work, I have somewhat succumbed to a place of disengagement or even diminished performance.

Yet, this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetze, proposes a different response, a response that is particularly apropos for the month of Elul — “Lo Tuhal L’Hitaleim” (Deuteronomy 22:3). A common English translation of this verse is “Do not be indifferent.” An interpretation I prefer and which is arguably more accurate is “You may not conceal yourself” (The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi: Devarim,  p. 259), which provides a needed guidepost for our month of self-reflection leading into the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

I hasten to state that I am not opposed to the idea of not remaining indifferent. The mitzvot related to this core mitzvah — not taking a mother bird along with her fledglings or eggs, or caring for and ultimately returning lost property — speak to a requirement that we do take action that speaks to a sense of justice and compassion.

However, to not conceal ourselves suggests a more introspective admonition that seems right for this time of year. If we are to engage in meaningful self-reflection in Elul, leading us into the work of Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our souls, we must be our authentic selves in the process.  

In their commentary on Ki Tetze, Rabbis Elliot Rose Kukla and Reuben Zellman address the issue of authenticity in relation to the seemingly negative commandment, “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman; for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before G-d” (“To Wear Is Human, to Live — Divine,” Torah Queeries, pp. 254-255). They cite Talmud Bavli, Nazir 59a, to reference that our Sages argued it is not plausible to read the verse in a way that wearing the clothes of another gender is an abomination. (See also Rabbi David Greenstein’s article, “Pit’hu Li Sha’arei Tzedeq: Open the Gates of Righteousness for Me: An Opening Toward a New Reading of the Torah in light of the New Status of Gays and Lesbians in the Jewish Community,” The Journal of the Academy for Jewish Religion, Vol. 3, No. 1, May 2007, for an alternative interpretation of the word “Toeva” — i.e., not as an “abomination” but rather as an unwanted element in an otherwise perfectly acceptable act.)

Our Sages instead saw this prohibitive commandment applied more narrowly to situations in which someone would wear clothing with the purpose of falsifying their identity. Rashi likewise narrowed the prohibition to apply to cases when one would falsify their identity in order to seduce someone into unethical sexual relations. Rambam prohibited cross-dressing for the purpose of idol worship.

Of greater resonance, the Rema — Moses Isserles — offers examples of cross-dressing for a good purpose: to promote happiness. Kukla and Zellman frame the promotion of happiness in this instance to not requiring someone to dress in a way that would conceal their inner selves. They cite the many mitzvot in the Parasha that are intended to protect G-d’s creations. Likewise, they argue we should interpret the mitzvah on cross-dressing in a way that expresses integrity, care and concern, and not cause harm.

My Elul takeaway from this discussion on cross-dressing is that we should not only be more mindful of striving to honestly see our authentic selves but also be creating space for everyone to be their fully authentic selves. Assessing our own behavior, as we should during this time of year, is difficult enough. We should not be spending our good energy harshly and improperly judging others, and in the process throwing up obstacles to their need to be authentically who they are. 

Thu, September 23 2021 17 Tishrei 5782