Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - August 25, 2023

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Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - August 25, 2023

Just before the start of Summer, my husband and I experienced a right of passage for any Jewish parent. We witnessed our oldest son be “Shabbat Boy,” at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Early Childhood Center.

One of the highlights of the morning was the “mitzvah song.” The whole class (grown ups included) sits around in a circle, while the Shabbat child, in this case, Joey, walks around collecting each child’s tzedakah, their charity for Shabbat. 

During this circle time, the children proudly sing at the top of their lungs (to the tune of “The More We Get Together”) “Lisa, did a mitzvah, a mitzvah, a mitzvah, Lisa did a mitzvah, a mitzvah today.” Each 3-year-old, with their shiny coins, a smile on their face, and their name in a song, so eager to finally have a chance to do their very own mitzvah

The word mitzvah, is taken from the Hebrew root: tzaddikvav, and hay. Put them together and you get the word: tzivah, which means a command.  While you may have been taught in your religious school and day school experiences that a mitzvah is a good deed, the word mitzvah is really something deeper. A mitzvah isn’t a suggestion, it’s a commandment. 

In total, we have 613 commandments that are given to us in the Torah, and in this week’s Parasha, Ki Teitzei, we find 74 of them. In fact, there are more mitzvot in this week's portion, than in any other portion of the torah. 

We all know the big ones like the 10 Commandments – that’s the easy stuff: “Honor your mother and father”...check? “Thou shalt not kill”...check. For the majority of people reading this, I think we’re good at those – at least I hope…

In Ki Teitzei, however, we find commandments that constitute basic civil law. Ways that we are commanded by the Torah to treat one another in order to build, a thriving, a healthy, a safe, and a just community for us all.

If we see someone’s animal go astray or we find a lost item – we can’t ignore it. If someone’s animal has fallen in the road – we have to help. We can’t abuse or take advantage of our workers and we have to pay them on time. We can’t abuse or take advantage of those without power and if someone needs a loan, we have to be reasonable about what we ask for in collateral. We need to be honest in business. When it comes to food, we can’t be selfish – we have to make food available for those who need assistance and preserve their dignity in the process. We even find a commandment that if we come across a bird’s nest on the road, we must first shoo away the mother, so that she doesn’t have to witness us taking her eggs. 

While some of these may seem a little far-fetched from our urban LA lifestyle, they are at their very core, scenarios that come up in our daily lives at the office, at school, at Trader Joe’s, walking on the street, and yes, even driving in our cars.  

We observe God’s commandments in deciding to give up our seat to an elderly man or woman. We demonstrate the quality of our moral character when we decide to help a burdened parent trying to carry both child and stroller up a flight of stairs. We define ourselves by whether we take the extra time to find the owner of the wallet that was left on the floor in the Whole Foods parking lot. 

The many laws of Ki Teitzei are a reminder that our moral stature is not determined by our religiosity, adherence to ritual, or even our personal theology. Our moral fiber as Jews is developed in the thousands of small choices we make in the shadows of our lives when we think no one else may be looking. 

During these weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, our tradition asks us to take an account of our souls and to reflect on all those small, seemingly insignificant decisions that we make each and every day. A soulful reminder every year, that we are all in need of a little improvement, and a regular moral tune-up. We do this work, so we can move into the new year refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, and just like my son’s classmates, ready and willing to do our very own mitzvot.

Wishing you and your loved ones a sweet and healthy new year, and in the ineffable words of Bill and Ted, “be excellent to each other.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Lisa Peicott