Rules of engagement: Fight the blas attitude and act as if you care

Ki Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

Isaiah 54:1–54:10

In a moment of moral crisis, how much help can you count on from a New York cabbie? This was the subject of a very funny article some years ago in the New York Times Magazine, where the writer John Tierney sought out the advice of taxi drivers in the area of crisis management.

On a hot day in July, the writer, wearing a red ski mask with the word “BANK” on it, tried hailing a cab five times outside different banks, and each time a driver picked him up. “Go uptown,” the writer said as he entered the cab and hunched down in his seat. “Is anyone following us?”

rabbi daniel feder

“No,” the driver said as he looked in the rearview mirror.

“I’m kind of in a hurry, the writer said. “Could you drive faster?” The driver stepped on the accelerator and weaved impressively through traffic. “Let’s go across the park,” he continued. “I just robbed the bank there. I got $25,000.”

“$25,000?” the driver asked.

“Yeah. You think I was wrong to take it?”

“No, man. I work eight hours and I don’t make even $70. If I could do that, I’d do it too.”

“I don’t know. I wonder if I should bring it back. I’m afraid they’ll catch me.”

The driver checked the rearview mirror again and said, “Why you so worried? I don’t see anybody following.”

“Yeah, but there was a camera at the bank.” Ever the soother of souls, the driver responded, “You got that mask, why you so worried?”

The writer pointed to a bank on the corner. “Hey, there’s another bank. Could you wait here a minute while I go inside?”

“No, I can’t wait,” the driver said. “Pay me now.”

And thus ended the taxi driver’s session of nonjudgmental support and patient listening. The driver was glad enough to listen while it was convenient, but he didn’t want to get too involved. Keeping his distance, the driver made sure he didn’t become engaged.

That’s the subject of this week’s parshah, Ki Tetze, where Moses tries to impress moral values on the social structure of the Israelites so that Israel will be worthy of being God’s people. While cabdrivers may not often mete out moral judgment, the Torah gives us a high standard of engagement.

At the beginning of Chapter 22, Moses tells the Israelites, “If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer. If your fellow Israelite does not live near you or you do not know who [the owner] is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it; then you shall bring it back.” The same goes for finding anything that our fellow Israelite loses. Then, at the end of the third verse, Moses adds these powerful words: “You shall not remain indifferent.”

What a powerful statement. Perhaps emotions can’t be commanded, but, the sages teach us, Judaism commands us to act as if we care. And the spirit of the verse encourages us to broaden the meaning. It doesn’t simply mean that when it comes to other people losing things, we shouldn’t remain indifferent.

Rather, it means that when it comes to relations with animals and humans, we are to be compassionate and caring. When it comes to the plight of others, we are to be helpful. The religious spirit calls on us to confront the blasé attitude around us and urges us not to compromise our spirit, our soul. As a religious people, we are commanded to care, to feel the pain of others, to be engaged.

Moses calls upon us to utilize our God-given talents and attributes to add to the humanity to the world. With every interaction we have with others, with every decision we make, the world should be better off because we are here.

This is what our Torah sets as our standard, and this is what our religious tradition expects of us. It is also what this time of year, Elul, the month of preparation that precedes Rosh Hashanah, calls upon us to reflect on as we consider the blessings and the curses we have brought upon the world during the past year. May the words of this parshah bring us higher and higher as we reach toward the holy.

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].