When I learned to drive, I discovered the existence of an invisible social contract that’s about as ironclad as it’s possible to be in any agreement shared by multiple, diverse human beings: when you come to a stop sign, you stop. No matter that you are the only car for miles. When you see a sign and the sign says stop, you… stop.
All of our current disorder has me thinking about signs and what they symbolize, from the signs that make tangible the social contract to which we adhere while we’re on the road to the signs that make tangible our commitment to democracy, civility, and tradition. No matter what they look like, whether a stop sign or an American flag, they link us all to a shared value system.
Like sticky notes stuck on your bathroom mirror—admonitions to eat better or to exercise more, to smile or be kind or dance like no one’s watching—these signs are reminders of one’s beliefs, values, and priorities, even if—maybe especially if—they are aspirational. And, symbolically, they may take the form of possessions, dress, attitude, or intention. At their most effective, symbols are not merely objects upon which to gaze; they can prod us to act. They can transform us.
This week’s Torah portion, Ke Tetze, begins by describing a person setting out for war and then people in less perilous situations. The commonality among the examples given provides a roadmap of how one should act in a variety of circumstances, the details of which are important but still less profound than the paradigm itself: all of one’s behaviors, regardless of one’s situation, can become imbued with godliness.
A farmer, we are instructed in the reading, should not harvest the corners of his fields; instead, that portion should be left, the grain ungathered, so a person in need can enter the field and eat to his or her satisfaction. But neither should a needy person stuff his or her pockets to excess. And that social contract between the farmer and the person in need is where God resides and where we find godliness. We are no longer an agricultural society, but the social contract remains, prompting us to share our bounty with those in need.
Symbols and actions: the first calls us to act, the latter reflects the invisible power of visible symbols. A stop sign is merely a red octagon. Even the word STOP is signifier composed of symbols. And yet, we stop. Given the state of our nation these days, given the traffic on our metaphorical national highway, we would do well to slow down and notice what symbols are we heeding and which are we flying by, with nary a backward glance. On the often-divergent road of our democracy, Ke Tetze provides clear moral directions, but even more importantly, it reminds us to read the signs around us.
Rabbi Jay Strear
President & CEO