The other day, I took my kids to a birthday party. We didn't really know the newly 3 year old birthday girl - she is the daughter of my brother's next door neighbor, a young, single mother, without a lot of friends or much of a local support system. The mother planned a big party for her daughter, but learned rather late in the game that only one person from her original invite list was planning to come. So she called my brother and sister-in-law, who have a large family, and my sister-in-law called me. Somehow, we were able to scare up a couple of handfuls of kids and helped this family have a fun, freilikh party, hopefully lifting a few spirits along the way. (The birthday girl certainly enjoyed double-fisting cupcakes after we sang to her!)
As we were driving home, I asked my kids what they thought about the party - did they have a good time? After they both said that they did, I agreed and added in, "Plus, it was a mitzvah." The kids knew how we came to be invited to the party, so they understood that I meant that we had done something kind for another person.
Shmuel, my always-insightful 9 year old, thought about it for a second, then said: "It was a MITZvah, but not a meetzVAH. We did a good deed, but it wasn't a rule from the Torah."
So we talked about it for bit and decided that it was actually both - going to the party was a kind thing to do and also was a way to fulfill וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18) Sometimes a MITZvah can also be a meetzVAH.
This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ki Teitzei, which has the distinction of being the parashah with the most mitzvot - depending on whose count you go by, either 72 or 74. Many of those mitzvot seem to fall into the same category as our going to the birthday party. In addition to being explicitly instructed in the Torah, they're also good, kind things to do. Things like striving to return lost property, not ignoring injured animals you come across, building a parapet around your roof - these are mitzvot that speak to our obligation to act with kindness and accountability toward each other.
And many of the mitzvot in our parashah challenge us, coming from a worldview that seems xenophobic, misogynist, and prone to violence. These mitzvot, I imagine, are not ones we aim to fulfill in our interactions with others. And yet, they are still part of our Torah, a part of our inherited tradition.
Confronting troubling texts is something that I, as a woman and a rabbi, have had to do for as long as I have been a serious student of Torah. Excising these texts from the tradition, as tempting as that is, is not the right choice in most cases. Rather, I believe they provide us with the opportunity to look at them unflinchingly and examine how they may still - despite our vocal opposition - be operating in our lives or in our world today. When we see these parts of the Torah for what they are, we can both more fully understand how they continue to impact our world and find meaning in working to make them a record of our past, instead of instructions for our present.
This Shabbat in my d'var Torah, I'm planning to address some of these issues from our parashah. Again, over the High Holidays, you'll hear more from me in this vein. I hope you'll join us as we engage in learning together.