When I was a teenager I had hair down to my shoulders and I played organ in a rock band. I did not like rules. I thought rules were a real drag. I just wanted to have a good time, and I didn’t want anyone giving me rules and telling me what to do. I was really into my “rights.” I have a right to do what I want and have a good time, I figured, so everyone should just leave me alone so I could do my own thing.
Fortunately, it didn’t take me very long to figure out that my point of view was defective. Yes, America’s a free country, and you do have a right to mess your life up. But if you do that, you’re still messing your life up. So I joined the Army when I was 17 years old – where I certainly had to put up with a lot of rules, but what I discovered was that by living within the boundaries of those rules I was able to flourish and grow.
One of the ways God shows Her love for us is by giving us rules, just as one of the ways a parent shows his love for a child is to give him rules to live by. The Talmud says God wanted to give people of Israel merit, so He multiplied the Torah and mitzvot (commandments) for them.
If that’s the case, nowhere does God show His love for us more than in this week’s Torah portion. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, contains a total of 74 of the 613 commandments – more than any other Torah portion. And what an assortment of laws! We have rules about the treatment of women captured in war, rules about the treatment of the bodies of people executed for capital offenses, rules about returning lost objects, a prohibition against cross-dressing, elements of a building code, rules about intermarriage, rules about the treatment of strangers, rules about promptness in making payments, rules about charity, rules about business ethics, and, somewhat confusingly, a rule to remember what Amalek did and a rule to blot out the remembrance of Amalek. And about 50 more I didn’t mention.
One might read all these rules and go “oy, gevalt!” What do we need all these rules for?? The simple answer of course is that we need rules and laws to tell us what we can and can’t do. To create an orderly society. And there are different approaches to this question of what we can and can’t do. As the old joke goes, in Holland, it’s permitted unless it’s specifically forbidden. In Germany, it’s forbidden unless it’s specifically permitted. And in Italy or France: It’s permitted, especially if it’s forbidden.
In this regard, America is like Holland in the joke: it’s permitted unless specifically forbidden. The basic principle of course is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence in fact says that the reason men form governments is simply to protect those rights. The fundamental concept of American secular law is “I have the right to do whatever I want to do, as long as I don’t interfere with your right to do whatever you want to do.”
The Declaration of Independence in fact is a pretty radical document: not only does it say those rights are unalienable, it says that if a government is destructive of those ends, the people have a right to overthrow the government!
A few years after the Declaration of Independence, representatives of the 13 colonies got together and drafted the Constitution of the United States, which details the nature of the government and what it does. However, when the delegates drafted the Constitution, they neglected to include something very important – an accounting of what the government CANNOT do. After all the fuss about people’s rights in the Declaration of Independence, they forgot to say anything about what those rights would be, and they neglected to include those rights in the Constitution.
There was actually a lot of debate on this issue. There were many in the early government of the United States who thought it was not necessary to detail the rights of the people; they felt it was obvious. However, in the end, Thomas Jefferson’s opinion won out: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” In 1791 the Constitution’s first ten amendments were approved as the Bill of Rights.
With the passage of the Bill of Rights, many fundamental rights were enshrined as part of the Constitution: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. The Bill of Rights conveys the right to bear arms, and the right to a fair and speedy trial. The Bill of Rights protects us from unreasonable search and seizure (which some like to try and read as a right to privacy) and it protects us from unreasonable bail or cruel punishment.
The intent of the Bill of Rights is nowhere made more clear than in the 9th Amendment, which reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, just because we forgot to list a right in this document doesn’t mean you don’t have it!
It’s pretty clear that the founding documents of our country, especially the Constitution as amended, are very focused on, one might say obsessed with, our rights as individuals.
The Jewish people also have a Constitution. Our Constitution is the Torah. We wouldn’t call the Talmud amendments to the Torah since of course how could we “amend” God’s word, but the Talmud does contain the case law that clarifies what the rules in the Torah mean and how we apply them.
The Jewish Constitution reads a lot differently than the US Constitution. To show what I mean, let’s take a look at some of the 74 commandments found in this week’s Torah portion.
Deuteronomy 24:19 is an example of one of the many laws in this week’s parsha relating to giving charity. The verse commands us “when you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be for the convert, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your handiwork.” Notice the way the verse is phrased. It does not say anything about a poor person have a “right” to free food. Rather it is addressed to the farmer: he has an obligation, he has responsibilities, toward people who are less fortunate than he is.
This week’s parsha opens with a law—the opening verses tell us when you go out to war and take captive a woman “of beautiful form,” and desire her, and want to marry her, you have to treat her a certain way—allowing her to mourn for being uprooted from her home and parents. If you change your mind and don’t want her, you may not sell her for money or put her to menial work, because you have afflicted her. Again, it is interesting to note that while you could read this verse as telling us the captured woman has a right to be treated with dignity, that’s not how the Torah phrases it. The Torah instead addresses the responsibilities of the more powerful party.
In Biblical times, not only were captives put into slavery, but even a Jew could sell himself into slavery if he fell onto sufficiently bad times. However, the Talmud in Kiddushin 20a cautions us that “whoever buys a Hebrew slave is like buying a master for himself.” The slave owner had so many responsibilities toward the slave, it was like being enslaved yourself. Of course, every parent can probably relate to this concept.
We have another commandment in this week’s parsha which tells us that if you see the ox or lamb of your brother (a fellow “citizen,” another Jew) wandering around, you shall surely return it to him. Furthermore, if you don’t know whose ox it is, you’ll bring it to your home and take care of it until someone shows up asking for it! This commandment in many ways is the opposite of a right: it’s dumping a huge responsibility on a person simply for having the bad luck to find something. If you see the ox or lamb of your fellow citizen wandering lost, you can’t just go turn it into the police or something. You personally have to spend the money to feed this ox until the owner comes looking for it!
Not only does the Torah impose obligations toward other people, it imposes obligations on how we are to treat animals. This week’s Torah portion commands us “do not muzzle the animal to prevent it from eating when it treads corn.” We have a responsibility to treat animals with compassion.
Our responsibilities extend even beyond people and animals. In last week’s Torah portion we were given a commandment not to cut down fruit bearing trees when we besiege a city in a war – a commandment which the sages understood as telling us that we are not allowed to waste things, and which modern rabbis understand as commanding us to take care of the environment.
These few examples highlight a fundamental difference between Jewish law and secular law. Secular law is focused on your rights. Your right to live where and how you want to live, your right to a fair legal process, your right to be treated a certain way by the law. The purpose of the rights in secular law is to protect your freedoms. The highest good in the secular legal system is your freedom to do what you want to do, and that freedom will only be constrained where necessary to protect other people’s freedoms to do what THEY want to do.
Jewish law is much different. Yes, we have some laws which seem to be focused on protecting rights, or at least protecting other people’s rights—like do not murder, do not steal. But the bulk of the Jewish legal system is not concerned with rights. The Torah doesn’t really care about your “rights.” The Torah is much more concerned with your responsibilities. Your responsibility to treat other people with kindness and respect. Your responsibility to take care of those who are less fortunate than you are. Your responsibility to be kind to animals and to take care of the environment. And additionally, we have a responsibility to do certain things God asks of us, like observing the Sabbath and holidays.
So what’s the difference between a system built on rights and system built on responsibilities? The difference is that rights alone will not build a society worth living in. Rights alone will not make you a mensch. To have a society that is just, that is compassionate, that is caring, requires elevating responsibilities above rights.
We are now in the month of Elul, the time for taking stock, for cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. As you look at your actions of the past year, and consider what forms of teshuva, of corrective action you need to take, it’s not enough to look at those acts that infringed on someone else’s rights. Rather you have to take a look at the responsibilities the Torah charges us with, and consider whether you really have fulfilled your responsibilities as a Jew—your responsibility to be a mensch. When God came to Cain looking for Abel, Cain asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s unspoken answer—the answer of our tradition—is a resounding “Yes!”
May the Holy One help us all to fulfill our responsibilities toward our fellow man, toward our world, and toward God,