Parashat Ki Teitzei 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Teitzei
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

Entering the month of Elul – a time for great introspection and personal reflection leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I, and at the risk of being presumptuous, we, are experiencing a time of unprecedented turmoil. In my own congregation the resurgence of the COVID 19 pandemic via the Delta variant has been an emotional setback as we have been so looking forward to being back in physical space together. Wearing masks and putting hugging on the back burner leaves us detached from our need for connecting in community.

Polarization and animosity are pervasive surrounding the proper response to the pandemic. This notwithstanding that in our Jewish world Pikuah Nefesh – sanctity of human life – should dictate the seemingly obvious response that we take every measure possible to save human lives.

Other issues wherein we never would have anticipated rancorous disagreement – e.g., democracy, leave our country and our world more divided than ever. We can no longer find common ground on what is factual and what is real. A summer in which wildfires in Canada and the Pacific coast not only yield catastrophic damage at its source but have led to weeks of smoky haze here in Kansas City lead us all to wonder about the future of our planet. Most recently we have been struggling to balance our desire to end a twenty year war against the need to be responsive to an on-going humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

A response to all of this has been to hunker down; to hide from the news and disengage from this calamitous environment. To the extent that I can regress into this response and still function in my work I have somewhat succumbed to a place of disengagement or even diminished performance.

Yet, this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Ki Teitzei – proposes a different response; a response that is particularly apropos for the month of Elul. “Lo Tukhal L’Hitaleim.” (Deuteronomy 22:3) A common English translation of this verse is “Do not be indifferent.” An interpretation I prefer and which is arguably more accurate “You may not conceal yourself,” (The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi: Devarim at p. 259), provides a needed guidepost for our month of self-reflection leading into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe.

I hasten to state that I am fully supportive of the idea to not remain indifferent. The mitzvot related to this core mitzvah: Not taking a mother bird along with her fledglings or eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7), or caring for and ultimately returning lost property (22:1-3) speak to a requirement that we do take action that speaks to a sense of justice and compassion.

However, to not conceal ourselves suggest a more introspective admonition that seems right for this time of year.  If we are to engage in meaningful self-reflection in Elul, leading us into the work of Heshbon HaNefesh – an accounting of our souls – we must be our authentic selves in the process.

In their commentary on Ki Teitzei, Rabbis Elliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman address the issue of authenticity in relation to the seemingly negative commandment, “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman; for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before G-d.” (Deuteronomy 22:5; “To Wear Is Human, to Live-Divine,” Torah Queeries at pp. 254-255.) They cite to Talmud Bavli, Nazir 59a to reference that our Sages argued it is not plausible to read the verse in a way that wearing the clothes of another gender is an abomination. (See also Rabbi David Greenstein’s article, “Pit’hu Li Sha’arei Tzedeq: Open the Gates of the Righteous for Me: An Opening Toward a New Reading of the Torah in light of the New Status of Gays and Lesbians in the Jewish Community,” The Journal of the Academy for Jewish Religion, Vol. 3, No. 1, 5767/2007, for an alternative interpretation of the word “Toeiva” – i.e., not as an “abomination” but rather as an unwanted element in an otherwise perfectly acceptable act). Our Sages instead saw this prohibitive commandment applied more narrowly to situations in which someone would wear clothing with the purpose of falsifying their identity.

Rashi likewise narrowed the prohibition to apply the cases when one would falsify their identity in order to seduce someone into unethical sexual relations. Rambam prohibited cross-dressing for the purpose of idol worship.

Of greater resonance the Rema – Moses Isserles – offers examples of cross-dressing for a good purpose – to promote happiness. Kukla and Zellman frame the promotion of happiness in this instance as not requiring someone to dress in a way that would conceal their inner selves. They cite to the many mitzvot in the Parasha that are intended to protect G-d’s creations. Likewise, they argue, we should interpret the mitzvah prohibiting cross-dressing in a way that expresses integrity, care and concern, and not cause harm.

My Elul takeaway from this discussion on cross-dressing is that, not only should we be more mindful of striving to honestly see our authentic selves, but should be creating space for everyone to be their fully authentic selves. Assessing our own behavior as we should during this time of year is difficult enough. We should not be spending our good energy harshly and improperly judging others, and in the process throwing up obstacles to their need to be authentically who they are.
Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.