Deuteronomy 21:10 to 25:19
Torah is said to contain 613 mitzvot or commandments, 72 appear in this week’s text. A central theme emerges stating that an individual should rise above self-interest and care about the well-being of others in the community.
The week the parsha contains the “nuts and bolts” of Jewish practice…. We read many, many mitzvot (commandments) that Moses relates to the people. According to a count by Maimonides, there are 72 mitzvot, each as important as any other. This count can vary according to the person counting because many mitzvot have several parts, and there can be confusion as to which verses contain more than one individual mitzvah.
Most of the mitzvot deal with relationships of a person to others, These relations within the family…. business and social relationships…. and relationships between Israelites and non-Israelites.
There is one factor that seems to be central to a majority of the mitzvot… Every individual must rise above self-interest and have a real concern for the well-being of others. One passage from this week’s text dramatically captures this concept:
“If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your peer. If your fellow Israelite does not live near you or you do not know who [the owner] is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it back. You shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses: you must not remain indifferent.”
“If you see your fellow Israelite’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it, you must raise it together.” (Deut. 22:1-4)
This concept has even entered our political landscape with Hillary Clinton’s statement, “It takes a community.” … If success is shared, the results are multiplied because everyone benefits and contributes more back to the community…. This is true whether it’s financial and educational improvement, better health and safety, honest business practices, or balanced legal and taxation rulings.
The concept of “It takes a community” and, the idea from the Torah quote above “You must not remain indifferent” form a major theme in Judaism over the ages. Abraham showed concern for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah before the cities were destroyed. Later, he demonstrated hospitality to the three strangers (angels) when they appeared at the entrance of his tent…. When Abraham’s servant searched for a bride for Isaac, he encounters Rebecca. She sees that this stranger is in need of water and shows great hospitality by offering water to the servant and his camels. This is no small gesture because the camels consume large amounts of water….. Moses showed concern when he saw the Egyptian soldiers beating the Hebrew slave…. He also came to the aid of several women he didn’t know. These women – one of whom became his wife – were being threatened by a group of men. Later, we read that Moses stood-up for the entire Israelite community before God….. These three people put the good of others before indifference and their own self-interest.
One of the most significant traditions that demonstrate the Jewish path away from indifference is that of tzedakah. It is often translated as “charity; but, its true meaning is “justice” or “righteousness.” Through the laws of tzedakah, the community is commanded to rise above self-interest and be of service to those in need…. “If there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need…. Give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you; open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land.” (Deut. 15:7-11)
In the 19th and 20th Centuries this sense of Jewish community led to the creation of community organizations whose sole goal was to help the needy. Many of these organizations continue to this day. This strong belief in community is one of the major reasons for the continued existence and success of Jewish communities … and the Jewish people. It is one of the reasons why this week’s reading is so important.