President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
About this season 29 years ago, I started my freshman year of college. (And in one of those Sunrise/Sunset moments, my social media feed is now filled with my college friends dropping their kids off at college [our eldest went back to school on Monday].) As in most dorms, we had an upperclassman who lived in our hall and served as a resident adviser (Yale called them Freshman Counselors). And like most RAs, he was responsible for doing parts of our orientation: some things about safety and policies and how to get involved in the community.
Nearly three decades later, the part I most remember is what he said about alcohol: “Now you all know that the law and the policy is that, if you’re under 21, I can’t catch you drinking. So if you’re drinking and you hear me coming, make sure you put away your booze.” It was cute and honest and a little scary–pretty much what you’d expect when you put a 21 year-old in charge of a group of 18-year olds.
But that comment from my Freshman Counselor comes back to me regularly, particularly when we read this passage in Parashat Ki Tetzei (Deut. 22:1-4):
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; then you shall give it back.You shall do the same with that person’s donkey; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.If you see your fellow Israelite’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must raise it together.
The expression “ignore” or “remain indifferent,” which is repeated three times in these four verses, is a good translation of the Hebrew l’hitalem. But the idiomatic rendering of these lines here loses some of the nuance in the original. As Rashi comments on the second mention, lo tuchal l’hitalem: “You must not cover your eyes, pretending not to see it,” which suggests, perhaps, something a little more subtle: Our ignoring–our ignorance–isn’t necessarily passive. Often it’s a willful choice. (As a coffee mug in my kitchen reminds me when it asks, “What do you choose to ignore?”)
More often our ignorance, like many of our choices, doesn’t happen on a volitional level, but isn’t entirely unconscious either. Rather it lies somewhere in the netherworld just below the surface of our conscious awareness. You might have experienced this at some point when you’ve “woken up” to a reality that was staring you in the face but you failed to realize. (I’m reminded here of a college friend’s comment to me long after we had graduated. I observed that I had no idea when I was in school that I would wind up becoming a rabbi. She said, “Josh, we all knew you were going to be a rabbi. It was perfectly obvious.” I’m always the last to know.) The Torah’s exhortation, then, can be understood as not only to not overtly shield our gaze from reality–particularly unpleasant reality–but also to actively probe within our own mind-hearts in order to become more aware: to not cover eyes, pretending not to see.
Which brings me to one final observation, about this summer on Planet Earth. As I write (at 6 am) it’s already 80 degrees outside. We’re in the midst of a (mercifully short) intense heat wave here in the Chicago area. To open the door is to walk into a blast furnace of heat and humidity. This comes after months of coughing and sneezing as a result of air filled with smoke from burning forests in northern Canada whooshing south to us. It’s too hot to walk the dog for more than a few minutes. Everyone seems more tired just from the heat.
Regardless of where you live, my guess is that this summer you’ve encountered your own extreme weather: the heat or the smoke, or the rains or the floods. As Serge Schmemman wrote movingly in the Times this week, this summer seems like a moment when those of us who, consciously or subconsciously, afforded ourselves the luxury of ignoring things like melting sea ice or torrential storms or 120-degree temperatures in far away places could finally ignore them no more–because they’re right in front of us. And as Schmemman also observed, it feels like we just don’t know what to do.
I don’t entirely know what do either, of course. But I wonder if the haftarah for this week, from the Book of Isaiah (as all of them are these weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah) gives us something to start with. Here are its closing lines:
For this to Me is like the waters of Noah:As I swore that the waters of NoahNevermore would flood the earth,So I swear that I will notBe angry with you or rebuke you.For the mountains may moveAnd the hills be shaken,But my loyalty shall never move from you,Nor My covenant of friendship be shaken—said YHVH, who takes you back in love. (Is. 54:9-10)
The heat in the world can easily become mirrored and manifested in heat in ourselves: anger, rage, jealousy, fast-moving fires of speech and action. As the temperature rises, I sense that our call is to do even more to stop ignoring, to pay attention (“turn off, tune out, drop in,” perhaps), and to tap into the cooling waters of hesed, the profound interconnection that binds us all together. Because that’s the other reality we so often ignore, consciously or subconsciously: that we are all in this together, linked in ways far deeper than we usually realize.