15 September 2016
This week’s portion, Ki Tetze, is filled with rules and regulations that would be critical for a new society in a new land. The narration brings example after example of how uneven power or unbalanced personal leverage can harm individuals and society. Though you may have made a loan to someone, you are not allowed to hold as collateral anything that is essential to their livelihood and survival. So a loan to a miller does not allow you to take his millstone. Extending credit to a poor person does not give you the right to invade their home, nor can you take the garment they use to sleep in overnight. You may be the big boss, but paying the day laborer on time is your prime responsibility. And long before there was a National Institute of Standards, we were warned to have only one set of weights and measures in our marketplace so as not to take advantage of unsuspecting or trusting consumers.
In 1887, British historian Lord Acton observed that, “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see examples all around, from corporate greed to dictatorships to political scandal. People in power often exercise their authority with little regard for how it affects individuals or poisons society. But the challenge is not just to the usual power brokers. In the spirit of the approaching High Holidays, we should reflect on how each of us holds a certain amount of power over someone else.
This week’s portion is directed at ordinary folks who may forget how their position, money, political clout or assumed certainty of the rightness of their cause
, may push them beyond the proper form of discourse. The Hebrew word for disagreement is machloket, and the root of this word is chelek, a part. The implication is that in most every disagreement, all sides have at least a part of the larger truth.
Debate with passion is a value. Using one’s position of power to browbeat the opposition is not.
There is another statement in Ki Tetze that provides an important metaphor about community diversity and cohesion. “You are to make tassels on the four corners of your garments”(22:12). Why is this commandment found in the middle of all these societal laws? After all, the ritual obligation to wear the fringes we find on a tallit was already covered in the book of Numbers. One answer, relevant to power, may be in the way a tassel is made. It is spun from various strands and reminds us of the ties that bind our community together, even those strands that were thought to be true fringes. Their strength is in the very fact that they are composed of many separate strands and we are cautioned to care for these woven threads and not let them fray and come apart. As a community, we are indeed tied to – and significantly impact – one another.