This week’s Torah portion Ki Teitzei is comprised of more mitzvot or commandments than any of the other 53 Torah portions. By traditional reckoning, there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah; and no less than 72 (and some say 74) are contained in this week’s reading.
These 70-some commandments touch upon a diverse array of concerns, including the treatment of captives and the rights of aliens, the protection of workers and the most vulnerable among us — including the poor, children and even lost animals. Yet there is a central idea that connects all of these concerns together. Indeed, this idea is so central to the Torah that it serves as an ethical plumb line running through all of Jewish ethics.
“Lo tuchal l’hitalem!” Ki Teitzei demands — “you shall not be indifferent.”
This brief package of Hebrew has been translated in a variety of ways: Do not ignore your responsibilities; do not hide or withhold yourself or your help; do not refuse to get involved; do whatever you can to help.
Do you remember in the first pages of Genesis when Cain asks of God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s response is immediate and clear: “Yes!”
Yes, we are responsible for one another! Lo tuchal l’hitalem!
And do you recall the wicked son from the Passover Haggadah who asks, “What is this to you? To you and not to me?” For his so doing, for his drawing himself outside the locus of concern for the people around him, this indifferent son merits the label “wicked” and is held up as the paradigm of evil.
Lo tuchal l’hitalem! You shall not be indifferent is the essence of Judaism. And, given our comfort and (candidly) our facility with explaining why we needn’t care about the experience and suffering of others, Ki Teitzei’s message has never been more important than it is today. pjc
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is spiritual leader at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.