A Torah of Messiness

Dear Friends,

After seven weeks away at summer camp, my children recently returned with a mix of joy and relief, as well as sadness about the end of camp and summer. Like many other homes at this time of year, ours is messy as the kids unpack from camp and prepare for school, both physically and emotionally. The end of August is a time of winding down for some. Yet it can also feel like the calm before the storm, especially in a year when the Jewish holidays fall so early.

Of course, the messiness of our daily lives can feel insignificant compared to the messiness of our world. For many families and communities, there doesn’t appear to be any calm...  just more storms. From the Taliban's rapid rise to power in Afghanistan, to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, wildfires outside Jerusalem, new reports about climate change, the Delta variant — just as we were supposed to be emerging from COVID-19 toward the light at the end of the tunnel, there continues to be so much unknown, so much that feels scary and out of our control.

All of this was weighing on me when I opened this week’s Torah portion, which itself can feel out of control. Ki Tetzei contains the most individual commandments of any portion in the Torah. They come fast and furious, often with no obvious structure or connections. And much of the content is troubling. For example: If, or when, you take a female captive during wartime, you should treat her in an ethical way. Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us not to go to war — or at least not to take captives?

The list goes on: You should punish a wayward and rebellious child; When you steal the eggs out from under a mother bird, send her away first; You should get a divorce if you no longer love your spouse; If you are encamped on a battlefield and need to go to the bathroom, you should go outside of the camp... just to name a few.

That last one gives a reason that might connect many of these seemingly random, mundane — even disturbing — rules and situations: [You should go to the bathroom outside the camp] because God walks [with you] in your camp... and therefore your camp should be holy.

A battlefield encampment is one of the last places that we would typically associate with holiness. We might expect that when people are in survival mode, fighting against mortal enemies and far from the familiar, all bets are off. But the Torah tells us something that is so essential to Jewish ethics and spirituality: We don’t need to climb mountains or make pilgrimages to find God. We can’t wait for special times or special places to elevate us, nor just hope for the chaos to subside. On the contrary, it is our job to live our lives — the most mundane, messy, morally imperfect moments and situations — as if the Divine is walking right beside us. The messiness of the battlefield, and of this entire Torah portion, is a metaphor for human imperfection, for the world, and for life.

Torah is not reserved for the holy and pure, because real life is not reserved for the holy and pure. Judaism, and this week’s Torah portion especially, teach that to be human is to do our best each day, to make the effort to see the Divine in others and in ourselves, and, in our imperfection, try our utmost to bring ethics, goodness, and order to a very messy world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

Marc Baker

About the Author

CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.