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Torah Sparks

August 25, 2007 – 11 Elul 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 24:14 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1130; Hertz p. 852)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

There are weeks when the parashah is virtually all narrative; this is particularly true in the early books of the Torah. This week’s parashah is predominantly legal in nature. Some laws are reviewed in anticipation of entering the Promised Land, while other laws are set forth for the first time.

We read this week about marriage, divorce, and family laws; anti-poverty legislation; laws concerning corporal punishment; requirements for fair business practices; legislation concerning safety and accident-prevention; marital and sexual misconduct; forbidden relationships; and even laws concerning criminals who already have been executed. An underlying current in this week’s parashah is the need to provide protection for the most helpless members of society. Our parashah closes with a commandment to remember the behavior of Amalek, who attacked the Israelite camp when the Israelites were helpless, shortly after they left Egypt.

Topic #1: Ma'akeh

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt upon your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)

A parapet, or ma’akeh in Hebrew, is a low protective wall. The commandment from Deuteronomy about the need to build one has been understood broadly through the centuries. In the Talmud, Rabbi Natan teaches that the principle of protecting against foreseeable accidents implied in this verse has obvious applications in other everyday situations:

that a person should not raise a vicious dog within his house, and that he should not erect an unstable ladder within his house. (Bava Kamma 46a)

Some modern phrases about similar hazards are “an accident waiting to happen” or “an attractive nuisance.” What are areas in modern life where the principle of the ma’akeh could be applied? Are the laws that apply to building swimming pools or balconies and terraces on buildings examples of that? What of laws in many communities about keeping pit bull terriers or animals that rarely are kept as pets? In your opinion, would the reasoning underlying the commandment of ma’akeh be applicable to the requirement to wear seat belts when riding in a vehicle? What of wearing a helmet when riding a cycle of any kind? Can you think of any other situations in which the safety-conscious reasoning of ma’akeh would apply, without stretching the reasoning excessively? Are there differences in situations where a person is personally put at risk by a choice versus a situation where other people are put at risk by another’s decision?

What other principle(s) within the Torah are consistent with or underlie the mandate to take reasonable measures to protect human life?

Topic #2: The Quest for a Just Society

You [the merchant] shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your home alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely just weights and completely just measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 25:13-15)

The word just (a variant of justice), as it appears in this passage, is a translation of the Hebrew word tzedek. Clearly the Torah considers fraud in weights and measures to be a breach of justice as opposed to a trivial administrative matter. The implication is that such fraud could undermine the fabric of society.

Other examples in our parashah of the striving to achieve a just society include the rules against humiliating a borrower (24:10-13) and the requirement to pay a day-laborer in a timely fashion (24:14-15).

In post biblical times, the word tzedakah came to be used as the standard Hebrew (and Yiddish) term for charity. However, there is a significant nuance of difference between the Hebrew and the English terms. Charity comes from a Greek root meaning gift, which implies that a charitable contribution takes place only if the potential giver is in the mood. Tzedakah (from the Hebrew root meaning justice) reflects a sense that the donation restores or preserves a sense of justice in the world, and that the act of giving is required, not optional.

In the past year or two, media reports have drawn our attention to the conditions in kosher slaughterhouses, including the treatment of the rank-and-file workers of these factory-like facilities. The owners of one large facility have gone to great lengths to help the public see their management style in a more positive light and have noted that non-kosher plants are no better. In the meantime, the kosher supervision authorities, who are predominantly Orthodox, have defined the scope of their hekhsher, or supervision, narrowly, in terms of the technicalities of the kosher slaughter process. A commission jointly sponsored by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, both Conservative, has expressed concern about food that is technically kosher but clearly the end product of a socially unjust system. This commission has been developing recommendations for a second certification, which would be prominently displayed in addition to (not instead of) the traditional kashrut certification, by those facilities that meet specific standards for the treatment of their workers. This additional certification, is tentatively being called Hekhsher Tzedek.

Why do you suppose kosher purveyors and supervisors have been reluctant to address social and humanitarian concerns in the kosher food-production process?

Why do you imagine that the Conservative joint commission was attracted to the name Hekhsher Tzedek?

Do you think that the Hekhsher Tzedek is necessary? Might it be an example of over-regulation?

Imagine that you are in a store to buy kosher meat, and you find that you must choose between two products. They cost the same and have the same traditional kashrut certification, but Product A also displays the Heckhsher Tzedek and Product B does not. Which would you be more likely to buy? If the product displaying the Hekhsher Tzedek costs 5 percent more, would that affect your decision?

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