08/28/2012 07:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19: Don't Look Away

Peekaboo, in the Torah, is a deadly serious game.

At home, it was always more playful -- especially the magic moment when as kids, if we put our hands over our own eyes, we were sure we had become invisible. We covered our eyes to disappear, though our giggles always gave us away.

But Moses will have none of it. In this week's portion, Ki Tetze, he warns us about the ethical risks of not looking, of not seeing. "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow ... You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent."

The New JPS translation cited above is fluid and accurate, but a Hebrew ear picks up an unmistakable resonance -- the Hebrew root translated above as "ignore" or "remain indifferent" also means "to disappear." When you see your neighbor's wandering animals or missing property, do not hide yourself. Moses knew that our childlike fantasy was in fact real: When we choose not to see, we end up disappearing. The object of sight vanishes from the field of vision, and the would-be seer, Houdini-like, vanishes from any claim upon him: of responsibility, of community, of compassion.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Act established an acquisition process whereby any citizen of the United States "who had not borne arms against the U.S. Government" could obtain at minimal cost a 160-acre plot of government-surveyed land west of the Mississippi. The Homestead Act, passed during the Civil War and only after the secession of the southern states from Union, was intended to secure the Western territories for the North. But it also represented a particular agrarian ethic known as "Free Soil" policy: to limit the size of homesteads so that they would be acquired and farmed by individual families, rather than by plantation owners who would then work the land with slaves. The size of the plot was designed to determine the ethic of how it would be farmed.

But the Homestead Act (which, due to gaping loopholes and rampant corruption, never fully realized its ethical promise), created another reality on the ground: it put the citizens of the West in closer proximity to one another. Over the course of a century, the size of plots for U.S. Government land grants had decreased by halves: from 640 acres to 320 to 160. That less-is-more shrinkage meant not only that land would be worked by families rather than slave gangs -- it also made pioneers more visible to each other. For all of our treasured myths of self-sufficiency in the Old West, smaller parcels meant clearer seeing. Putting four family farms in what used to be single-owner tracts brushed citizens up against each other -- their possessions and misfortunes, their aspirations and simple daily needs. The Homestead Act made it harder to disappear.

In her elegant and provocative new collection of essays "When I Was a Child I Read Books," Marilynne Robinson calls the Homestead Act "the most poetic piece of legislation since Deuteronomy, which it resembles." This week's portion in particular insists upon the dignity of those who might otherwise fade from our sight: because they are poor, because they are powerless, because we deem them insubstantial.

The portion provides a litany of reminders to see the human dignity that might otherwise be obscured by circumstance or prejudice: "You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master" warns us against all the ways we treat persons as property. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land" calls us to examine closely our treatment of immigrant laborers. "You shall not subvert the right of the stranger or the fatherless" warns against the powers we exercise and abuse simply because we can. And the portion's instruction to not pluck clean every sheaf, every olive, every grape of the vineyard from even our own property lights the way to that legislation of 1862: keep your parcels -- of land, of food, of appetite, of greed -- contained. Leave something for your close neighbor.

In an election season marked by condescension and mud-slinging, we are justified as citizens in feeling insulted by it all, in decrying the candidates' lack of vision. But perhaps we might extend the critique, humbly, to ourselves. It is not only the candidates' lack of vision we should be deploring, but our own. And for us, perhaps, it is not about the vision of the far horizon, or the 10-year economic plan. For us it is the vision of the near neighbor, the wandering ox, the stranger at the gates, the citizen or not-yet citizen.

My favorite passage from this week's portion describes a scenario in which a debtor defaults on a loan, and you as creditor are entitled to collect collateral. But you are not entitled to enter his home to collect the pledge, and if he is a poor person whose pledge is a blanket that would keep him warm at night, you must return it to him at sundown. The admonition is literal in its time and echoes powerfully in our own: "You must not go to sleep in his pledge." Do not sleep in comfort in the presence of another person's need. Don't even close your eyes. And whatever you do, don't disappear.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.