Ki Tetzei – We Go Forth

There were rules to how things operated at Disney.[i] Walt Disney had an Advisory Board. The early days of the studio were difficult, but Disney refused to give up on his creative visions. You can imagine, that there were those on his advisory board that agreed and disagree with him.

There was a cultural and social norm at Disney around these disagreements. Walt Disney would present some creative, imaginative dream that he was thinking about. Often the members of his advisory board would look at him with a gulp of disbelief and resist his dream with intense arguments.

You would think that their disagreement would stop Disney in his tracks. But no. Walt Disney’s rule was, if every member of his advisory board resisted the idea, he would pursue it! Yes! You heard right!  In the face of majority disagreement, he saw opportunity. If the challenge was not big enough, Walt Disney, felt it was not worth the while.

What an interesting way to operate! All organizations have their cultural and norms of operation.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, meaning, “you shall go forth,” contains a great number of commandments that teach us how society should operate. Out of the 613 Mitzvot of our tradition, nearly an eighth of the rules are found in this Parashah. Maimonides numbered the commandments of this portion at 72, Sefer Chinuch (an anonymous medieval work) 74. In the most oft used Torah Commentary in the Reform Movement, “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, he labels this segment of the Torah: “The Social Weal,” emphasizing the structural society that is created by all these Mitzvot.

Rules and norms of society can create a cohesive social weal. As the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it – a sound and healthy and prosperous community; a place of well-being. As human-beings we feel comfortable knowing what rules and norms exist… it puts us in a place of security.

As we continue to watch the tragic pictures of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we see folk not just struggling with the tragic loss of property and livelihood, but living with the reality that the rules and norms of lives are all disheveled around them. What was once clear has morphed into unclear. Work. School. Housing. Insurance. What will the near future hold? What will the distant future be? The storm has bought them to a place of insecurity. So many affected. Including our own. Federation estimates, 71 percent of the city’s Jewish population, 63,700 lives in areas have experienced high flooding, including 12,000 Jewish seniors, have been effected. When life is so deconstructed it is natural that psychological disarray follows. We look at what they are facing and with empathy and hold them, hold them, in our prayers and Tzedakah.

The security of rules and norms stems from our childhood Our parent’s gave us boundaries. Our schools gave us rules.

We are about to begin our Religious School JEM year. One of the first things our teachers in our JEM classrooms will do is sit down with the students and devise the classroom rules, so that teacher and child are all on the same page of behavior. Setting parameters allows fun and productive learning to happen. If the rules are not set, the classroom will most likely have behavioral problems that will require intervention. The creative and joyful classes that we pride ourselves on at Har Sinai Congregation will not be realized.

It is natural to us as dreaming to desire behavior and operational boundaries. The rules and norms don’t always remain constant. However they can change or transition. William Bridges, in his reknown book “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change” talks about the difference between change and transition.

He likens change to just moving about chairs. It is situational. The move to a new site. A turnover of staff. The revision of a pension plan. The merging of two businesses. The destruction of a Hurricane. It is the movement of the physical or an actuality into another place. It is concrete.

On the other hand, transition, is psychological, the creating of a new way of operating. This is the process that that has the greatest possibility of creating a new social weal. Transition tends to be messy. They are an organic process.

Managing transition, creating a new social weal, involves providing space for people to let go of the old ways and identity and allowing for the loss of the past.

Then comes an in-between time when the old is gone, but the new is not yet in operation. William Bridges calls this “the neutral zone.” It a time of experimentation and often discomfort when things are in disarray and the dream or vision is articulated.

Finally, people come out of a transition into a new beginning. People in organizations, society, and life do this all at different paces and times, two steps forward and one step back, as it is a psychological process that cannot operate on a set time frame.

Recreating a new social weal is not easy, it requires a lot of listening and reframing, experimentation and risk taking, because it is an emotional, psychological process.

This last week Cantor Rhoda Harrison and I participated in the 1000 Minister March on Washington DC. 1000 Ministers was an underestimate, because ultimately 3000 Ministers marched to commemorate the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

2017-08-28 10.25.18-1

I and so many other Jewish professionals became aware that the beginning of the march was a pinpoint of a major psychological transition. We knew we were present to advocate a vision of a society filled with tolerance, justice and love. We also knew that the Rev. Al Sharpton was the instigator of this event. Being there felt like we were taking a risk. After all, Rev. Al Sharpton, has been a highly controversial figure for decades within our Jewish community. He has not come across as a friend of the Jews.

Rev. Sharpton in the spirit of Teshuvah, has in recent years privately expressed regret for anti-semitic statements of the past.  It still must have taken Christian Chutzpah, to appeared amongst the 300 rabbis and cantors gathered at a pre-march meeting organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. There he demonstrated repentance publicly, in word and deed, as he and Martin Luther King Jr III, visited with the rabbis and cantors present in that hotel hall.

Invoking those murdered in the Freedom Summer of 1964 he said: “We should never forget that it was Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that died together – two Jews and a black – to give us the right to vote.” He spoke of how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed with his feet marching alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And he said: “When we see people in 2017 with torches in their hands, talking about ‘Jews will not replace us,” it is time for us to stop praying to the cheap seats and come together.”

Many in the room said: “Amen” and gave him a standing ovation. What he did was not easy walking into a room of Jewish leaders wary of his agenda. Yet he also walked into a room of clergy who know, that transition is hard, the importance of forgiveness, and the imperative to find allies in a shared vision. Creating a vision of a new social weal – a sound and healthy and prosperous community; a place of well-being, means stepping into that messy neutral zone.

The 1000 Ministers March had been planned before Charlottesville. The change management at our governmental level, the moving about and removing of chairs, the creation of chaos that we witness daily on our TV sets, was and is, fostering this  not-so quiet counter-revolution of transition.

On Monday, it found evidence ministers and people of faith who have not marched together in a long time, aligning with a mutual dream – tolerance and love and a better society. Rabbis and Cantors, black Ministers and white Ministers, Buddhists in saffron, black robed monks, Sikhs and Imams.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a social weal as – a sound and healthy and prosperous community, a place of well-being.

Our transition to that place is a dream.  We have a dream. When Martin Luther King gave his “I had a Dream” speech 54 years ago, he knew the march ahead to transitioning the social weal was hard and long, but he kept his eye on that dream. When Walt Disney had a creative idea, he pursued it despite the nay-sayers on his advisory board because he understood that the big challenges were the most worthwhile.

To create a society of tolerance and love and fairness, that multiple religious traditions yearn for, means that we look for partnership in the multi-faith places that before we may have resisted.

Together in this neutral zone of transition we will march towards a new social weal that supports the best visions of our faiths. Ki Tetzei, we will go forth, we must go forth, towards a dream that will, to co-opt an interesting phrase, make America great again[ii].


[i] Charles Swindoll, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, p.107.


[ii] Donald Trump

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