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Friday, September 9, 2011

Parshat Ki Tetze: Being Grateful for What We Have, Even Though We Know It Is Not Ours

This week's parashah/portion, Ki Tetzei (Devarim /Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19), contains the greatest number of mitzvot/commandments of any Torah portion. The 72 mitzvot found in the parashah focus on everything from the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, suspected adulterers and the poor. This amalgam of mitzvot may seem random at times, and yet there is a guiding principle which reminds us not to be indifferent to other people and the world around us.

One of the mitzvot
found in the parashah concerns the to return lost property, no matter what it may be or how long ago we may have discovered it. In reading, the commentaries on Ki Tetzei I came across many concerning this specific mitzvah.

One Hassidic tale relates the story of a man who came to the great rabbi Aaron of Chernobyl to tell him of a terrible recurring nightmare that he was having. The man had found a wallet containing a fortune. When he could not find the owner in the crowd he kept the money, and with it became even wealthier than he could have imagined. In his nightmare, the man to whom the money had originally belonged became destitute and had to beg in the streets. He died leaving his wife and children in poverty so that his children could not even afford an education.

The rabbi instructed him to find the man who had originally owned the money and give him half of the wealth he had accumulated. Once he did so, the man's nightmares ceased.

The other story is used as a parable to teach about this mitzvah
in a more indirect manner. In this Talmudic story (Ta'anit 25a) men carrying two measures of barley visited Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. They deposited the barley with him and seem to forget about it. Seven years later, the men returned to find that Rabbi Pinchas had sowed the barley and reaped great harvests. When he saw them, Rabbi Pinchas told them, without hesitation, to take everything from "your storehouses filled with grain." The original grain had belonged to them, and so did all that was produced from that grain in the future,.

In the first story, the man who found the wallet realized that he had profited from the loss of another. Unable to abide this, he was instructed not to return his entire fortune, but instead to share the wealth with the man to whom the money had originally belonged. In the second story, the grain was not lost, but it was simply forgotten. Still, in good faith, Rabbi Pinchas not only shared the wealth, but he handed all of the remaining grain back to the original owners.

Both stories operate based an underlying assumption that there is someone who is the "rightful" owner and someone else who is simply a "proxy" or "temporary" owner who must eventually relinquish not only the original property, but also all or part of what had accumulated. In principle, this moral is one to which we can relate. We must care for others as well as for ourselves. We have no right to profit from the misfortune, negligence or forgetfulness of others. Nor can we profit completely from that which is not completely ours.

These parables remind us that this is part of creating a caring society, just as much as the laws that protect the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger that we also find in this week's parashah. However, I believe that there is another underlying assumption within these parables that we should question. The assumption of which I speak is that the property is owned by anyone at all. In Psalm 24, we read "the world belongs to God in all its fullness, the earth and all who dwell on it..." In other words, everything on this earth belongs to God. Nothing is truly owned by any human being. An extension of this can also be found in the central teachings of mindfulness practice. For mindfulness teaches that nothing truly belongs to anyone and that nothing in life is permanent. Everything is temporary and ephemeral. We must rejoice in the moment, because that is all we have. We must rejoice in what we have now because we do not know if it will be "ours" the next moment, if indeed it ever was "ours."

We spend so much of our lives focusing on acquiring things, whether money, property, books, music, etc., etc. that we often forget to enjoy what and who is in front of us at any given moment. In both of the stories above, there was an assumption that something belonged to someone and therefore needed to be returned. Yet, there was also an assumption that nothing truly belonged to anyone, or else neither of the "finders" would have dared to profit at all or to keep – or return - any of what they had amassed.

I couldn’t help but think of this both as the 10th anniversary of September 11th approaches and as I watched the victims of the horrendous flooding in the areas of Pennsylvania that surround where I live. Those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and those who lost their homes and possessions in the flooding, along with all those who have lost property and loved ones in tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, learn this lesson the hard way.

The survivors of tragedy know too well the sense of loss, whether it is of the life of a loved one or of their property. This truly puts into perspective the need to appreciate what we have in the moment, for it may not be here the next. I am not equating these experience completely, for though the lost pictures of loved ones, of family heirlooms and even one’s home can indeed cause intense pain, yet the loss of a loved one’s life is clearly without measure.

These two stories bring to light an essential paradox in life with which we must struggle that I believe is also highlighted by the loss experienced by the victims and survivors of great tragedies. Given the nature of society as it has developed we must realistically focus on "ownership" and yet if we look at the grand scheme of things we really don't own anything. Those who choose to become monastic or practice a life of true simplicity give up everything except what they need to keep themselves warm and fed. Most people are not willing to do that, nor is that what I am proposing. For we are also commanded to rejoice in God's world and everything in it. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that everything is temporary, from a human perspective, while everything is eternal from a Divine perspective. How to enjoy what we have and who is in our lives in this very moment while knowing deep down that the next moment everything may change is one of the most common, yet most difficult, challenges of life. We all know this deep down. Yet it is tragedies such as 9/11, Katrina and the recent flooding that bring it home for us on a different level.

Therefore, we must continue to engage ourselves with things and people to fill our days, and theirs, with joy. We honestly do not know who and what will be here with us the next moment. Acknowledging the truth that everything is temporary can cause us to despair, if we let it, and yet we are commanded to rejoice in what we have and who is part of our lives at this very moment. We must participate in life with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might so that we can experience that joy.

May we experience this Shabbat and every day as the series of moments in time, which they are. May we be mindful of and experience all the joy that each moment has to offer. May we remember to be grateful for everything and everyone with whom we share each particular moment. And may we do so acknowledging that nothing and no one can ever truly belong to us, nor can anything or anyone be permanent and eternal.

Still, knowing this, and knowing that each moment will end, and a new one begin, we must praise, give thanks and rejoice for what we have. In that way we can honor God, humanity and the universe, but also the memory of everyone we have lost and all that we once thought belonged to us, even though we realize now that it never did.

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