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In Disaster's Wake Comes the Need to Reach Out
While last week many of us continued to watch the devastating news images of Hurricane Katrina's destruction of cities and towns along the Gulf coast, the month of Elul arrived - a month that challenges us to listen for God's voice with a particular and sensitive ear.
Our sages teach that Elul is the month when we begin, in earnest, our preparation for the Days of Awe by recognizing that the One to whom we shall turn as our Ruler, our Parent, our King, is also our Beloved. The phrase from the Song of Songs that we employ at many weddings, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li/"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine," is reflected in the name of this month (Aleph/lamed/vav/ lamed).
So when we turn to the Torah portions during this month of Elul, we may do so with a finely tuned ear, with a keen eye and with an open heart, ready to receive the teachings of our Beloved, the Source of Torah. In Ki Tetze, we are richly rewarded. This sixth portion of Deuteronomy repeats many of the laws, regulations and directions that Moses has delivered to the Israelites throughout our desert journeys.
Post-Hurricane Katrina, we hear these words with a different and perhaps a deeper understanding. We read these words now with eyes that have shed tears at the terrible losses of life in the cities of the South. We take in these words with hearts that have wondered how to share the pain of those who have lost so much. The Torah comes to remind us of our deep connection with those who have suffered.
Ki Tetze comes, lovingly, to shake us from our paralysis and remind us of our shared destiny.
"Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there." We suffered, and with God's help, and the leadership and guidance of God's partners Moses and Miriam and Aaron, we made our way through the narrow straits and built new lives in a new land.
A History of Caring
We Jews are survivors who have made our way, again and again, through narrow places, through floods and high waters. We have a proud history of caring for others, both our community and the stranger. This portion reminds us of that connection, and points the way toward reaching out to provide help for those affected by this most recent and far-reaching disaster.
This portion reminds us how we must respond to those who remain in need: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land." In a time when many have lost both their loved ones and all that is familiar, our text teaches that "You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless."
And how are we - who live such busy, self-absorbed lives - to reach out? The Torah opens the way: "When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow." When we count our blessings, when we measure our assets, when we take account of our holdings, we are commanded to set aside a portion for those who are in need.
May each of us hear the Beloved call to us, reminding us that God's love is realized in the relationships we extend to our brothers and sisters, whatever their circumstance. During this month of Elul, may our days be filled with acts of kindness, compassion and justice.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., is director of the Pennsylvania Council/Federation of Reform Synagogues, Union for Reform Judaism.