Friday, September 1, 2017

Ki Teitzei: We Can't Sweep It Under the Carpet...

It isn't, but it sure feels like this week's Torah portion is the story of Noah and the Biblical Flood. The utter destruction and devastation of Hurricane Harvey seems to exceed the predictions and fears of nearly everyone. It's been called a "one-in-one-thousand-year flood event." And I recently heard one Texas-politician say that he
didn't want to describe Harvey as being of "Biblical" proportions... so instead he just called it "apocalyptic." I feel like I'M reeling from this horrible disaster, and I don't really have a personal connection to Houston; I cannot imagine what people there are experiencing, or what it will look like to piece their lives back together. Thinking back once more to Noah and his deluge, it always seemed so fictional, so other-worldly... yet here we are, with a real-life example of something almost Biblical in its magnitude. For the people who lived - and will continue to live - through it, I'm sure it feels every bit as annihilating as if they were watching from inside an Ark, as their communities were demolished by rain and wind. But our parashah is not Noah. So what messages might we glean from this week's reading, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey?

I want to offer one message, but it's a tough one to hear. I found myself reading Ki Teitzei, our Torah portion, with an eye towards Harvey, and as a result, I noticed something I haven't really reflected on before.
We read a long series of laws that specifically deal with community relations, and with interpersonal behavior that helps govern society. As you can imagine, the Torah also offers some extreme examples, where actions are so egregious that their penalty is death. The part I hadn't previously stopped to consider is how the Torah repeats a particular phrase almost every time the verdict is execution for a member of the Israelite community. Whether it's a stubborn and rebellious child, an adulterer, or an idolater, the punishment is public stoning, and the text follows up the issuance of each decree with the phrase: "Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst." In our Torah portion alone, this phrase is repeated FIVE times (Deut. 21:21, 22:21, 22:22, 22:24, and 24:7)! And it's employed many other times throughout Deuteronomy as well. So what do we make of this phrase, and what's it got to do with Harvey?

The word that really stuck with me is the Hebrew "bi'arta," which may mean "to purge" or "to sweep away." The Hebrew root is the word "burn," but it also yields
words like annihilate, exterminate, destroy... you get the picture. As I write this, there are indeed fires and explosions plaguing Houston, while flood waters continue to punish the coast; "sweeping" away homes, cars, and, heart-breakingly, people's entire lives. But they - the people - are not evil. I want to be REALLY clear about that. We cannot accept the notion of Hurricane Harvey as punishment, just as we refused to see Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy as retribution for bad behavior. But there IS an evil here, and there IS a lesson that we MUST learn from this type of devastation. Our Torah portion presents many, many different laws, and we may fundamentally disagree with their execution (literally...) of those laws, but the over-arching message is: We are interdependent. We need to take care of one another, and we need to work hard to protect our societies and our countries, because complacency and callousness leads to disaster... for EVERYONE!

In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the "evil" we must recognize is the betrayal of our environment, on two levels: 1) We ignore climate change warnings to our own detriment. How can we say that Harvey is an anomaly - that comes once a millenium - when it's the THIRD (at least) major natural disaster in just over a
decade??? How many more calamities like this must we endure before we acknowledge that it's the new normal, and that WE have caused these things to happen?? And 2) This might sound strange, but we must heed a warning from Joni Mitchell's old song "Big Yellow Taxi": "They paved paradise to put up a parking lot." I truly don't mean that in a flippant way. Parking lots, strip malls, convention centers, and the constant growth of Houston meant that flood water had nowhere to go! Marshland and swamps are nature's way of absorbing rainwater, and when we encase the earth in a hard shell, the water just sloshes around looking for somewhere to go. And the biggest curse of them all comes when we don't learn from past mistakes. Let us not repeat and repeat the same errors, refusing to see the underlying problems that got us here.

We pray fervently for the safety of our sisters and brothers in Texas and Louisiana, and we send our support to help them rebuild and grow stronger. But also, we send prayers of wisdom and thoughtfulness, urging them to demand more care and consideration from their leaders and developers. It is scary to say, but we, all of us, are being swept away; purged off our land for ignoring these concerns. Let's not keep repeating and repeating these mistakes... at our own peril.

To read a beautiful prayer, to help us take stock in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, please click here to read the writings of my colleague, Menachem Creditor. I've also posted the prayer on this blog, you can read it here.

To make a contribution to Hurricane Harvey relief, click here, or contribute to any number of (reputable, established, safe, honest) charities and organizations that seek to help at this most trying time. Thank you!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of European Space Agency on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of John Fielding on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Agence Rol on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Victorgrigas on Wikimedia Commons
5. CC image courtesy of Rocket000 on Wikimedia Commons
6. CC image courtesy of CFCF on Wikimedia Commons

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