The Teshuvah of Creating a Just Society
Posted on September 7, 2017
Our portion this week, Ki Tavo, gives us powerful commandments about how to live in society. We are commanded to protect the rights of the impoverished, the widow, the immigrant, and the stranger among us. We are to be honest in business, careful of the needs of the hungry and the homeless. We are to create a society of ethical practice and moral concern. We are to understand that a nation is judged by how it treats its weakest members. We are told repeatedly that God knows and expects us to live to this covenant, uphold it, cherish it, make it our own. And we are told of the blessings that will be ours if we can do this, and the curses we will bring on ourselves if we cannot.
This covenant was extensive and challenging. It put real responsibilities on its members, its b’nai berit, to do things that weren’t easy or obvious, because they were right. No doubt our ancestors sometimes struggled when told to “open your hands” to the poor and the needy, to “welcome the stranger”, to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Probably they didn’t always give their full tithes to the Temple, or make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to declare gratitude for what they had. I’ll bet there were times when they didn’t provide adequately for the widow and the orphan, either.
But that challenge, the daily requirement to try to live to a standard, made them better people, and made Jewish society in Biblical times egalitarian and ethical. And when our Israelite forbears failed to live up to this covenant they learned that what God really wanted was not punishment but teshuvah, the return to the right course.
Undoubtedly, positive societal change was not instantaneous but evolutionary. It took time to take full effect, and longer still to institutionalize. But change for the better eventually took place for our ancestors, and was codified as a practical, ethical framework by the rabbis of the Talmud.
It’s appropriate to read Ki Tavo at this season of the year, during the month of Elul. On a personal level, we seek to improve our own lives, become more generous and more grateful, love those around us, find our own teshuvah. But we also must strive to make our society better, to assure the rights of minorities, to protect the poor and stranger here in America, our country.
Ki Tavo teaches us that with steady moral pressure injustice can be overcome, and the faith and fairness Deuteronomy commanded 2500 years ago can be created here. As Pirkei Avot tell us clearly, “Although you may not complete the work, you are not free to abandon it.” That is, working to make our society caring, responsible, and good is one of our central tasks, regardless of the circumstances.
In this season of return, may we all rededicate ourselves to this sacred labor.
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