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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 10 Apr 2020 05:41 PM and ends Sat 11 Apr 2020 06:40 PM

Word of Torah for Parshat Ki Tetze

ט' אלול ה' אלפים תשע"א

Word of Torah for Parshat Ki Tetze This Parasha (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) can be paired with the Noah narrative in Genesis for reasons I will explain below. It also can be considered a companion to Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) which, you will remember, had many laws that read like pithy aphorisms we were meant to live by but upon closer look are more practical than theoretical. For instance, "Stand up before an elderly person" (meaning give them your seat) or "Do not curse the deaf" (meaning do not say something bad about someone while s/he is not there to defend her/himself).

In the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19, Kedoshim, there are also many statements that are more of a nature of general guidance in life, for example, "Do not hate your fellow in your heart" or "Love your neighbour as yourself." These are great for a motto or a poster but they are not as instructive as they are amorphous and come along with no examples to elucidate the statements.

When the Torah provides large sweeping statements, it is hard to really get our teeth into how we are meant to live in accordance with them. Take "not hating people in my heart." How do I stop myself from having an emotional reaction?  What do I replace my knee-jerk reactions with?  Am I meant to be sweet all the time, even when I have had a rotten day?  When people mistreat me, am I meant to offer them my other cheek?  Wrong religion!

Parshat Ki Tetze, this week's Torah portion, by contrast, is filled only with examples and contains hardly any general comments to help us understand the aim of the law or even why these short sharp laws are put together in the same place.  I adduce from this that these laws are meant to teach us that every situation has its own context and cannot fit neatly into any one category of, say, justice or goodness.  What we need to do with the all the short laws in this week's Parasha is form the general rule that calls the examples. This rule is: Be a mensch!  Mensch is a Yiddish term meaning a humble yet upstanding person.

"Be a Mensch" is a great headline but in order to understand what is meant by that, we are given loads of examples from the text. We have to draw out the instruction from the example by inductive reasoning. We have enough clues to understand that being a mensch involves the compassionate treatment of domestic situations at times where justifications can work to explain why one might have acted like a scoundrel.

Don't like your wife one day?--let her go with nothing! Who would blame you? Judaism instituted a Ketubah payment so that there would be an incentive for a husband to think again before using a woman by making a slave out of her effectively, being intimate with her and lowering her value (objectively in the ancient world) and impairing her own self-esteem, leaving her without any means of support.

This is a dramatic example, but there are miniscule examples, everyday situations in which you quietly let go of your façade of the "good person". You are diminished as a person as you commit these private trespasses or acts of omission. We are commanded to return lost property, for instance. The Talmud picks up on all of these laws and explains precisely how they are to be applied.

Wasting other people's time becomes a crime in the Talmud. Making someone believe you are interested in buying a car when you only frivolously want to have a test drive. This is called g'nevat da'at, literally "stealing someone's knowledge" which amounts to more than wasting someone's time. You have given that salesperson the momentary false excitement that you are interested in buying their merchandise and let them down. You could have just decided against buying a car this year. No one could prove you had no intention of buying one. Everyone does it, besides, they are used to it...on go the rationalisations.

Just as in last week's Parasha, relevance is not a problem in our Parasha. These are clear directives that apply everywhere; one can generalize from the examples and understand that G-d is watching at every moment.  No behaviour is off limits for the Judge of All to assess against G-d's own standard of decency and gentle treatment of fellow creatures, humanity, oneself and the world. This is why our religion is considered hard to abide by, not because of the Kosher Laws!

Where is the tie in with Noah? Firstly, we have the case of the gluttonous son who would be stoned at the gate. This is a similar form of wrath to that shown by G-d towards the world's population prior to the flood. They were killing and eating animals wantonly and with torture. They enjoyed playing with living things that they could manipulate and discard. They were only consuming and not giving back a thing to anyone. Hashem thought they were better off dead. Hashem undid the work of creation to reflect Day 2 of Creation in which there was only sea and sky. God said in effect, "I put humans on earth to till the soil and take care of the animals; what you are doing defeats my purpose in creating you!" In saving Noah, G-d had a tangible example of someone who knew what he was created to do, and was almost at the mercy of the animals on the ark, serving them and cleaning their cages.

Notice the many animal examples in this Parasha. We cannot muzzle our animal while it grazes. Shoo away the mother bird when you go to take eggs. Do not tie two unequal sized animals to plough together. Do not overburden an animal. The list goes on. Rambam, Maimonides, teaches that this is all to teach us a kal va'chomer (a case of a light situation teaching a stricter one.) We find sociopathic behaviour here. Children who play sadistic games with animals grow up to be cruel to humans. We have to understand the meaning of these seemingly little incidents that are character-forming in the individual.

While the Torah has the gluttonous child as a law on the books, every source says that the situation never really arose when Jewish offspring were stoned.  It was put into the Torah to show what is meant to happen to people who completely waste or despise their own self-worth and potential worth as a human being and then act on others as a reflection of that revulsion or numbness.

The final tie with Parshat Noach is the Haftarah, the accompanying prophetic portion. Isaiah fans, this is one of our favorites, right? A shortened version of the same Haftorah from wait... Parshat Noach. Turn to Noach the end of the Parsha (page 47 in the Hertz Chumash) and find it.

"In a little moment of wrath I hid my face from you. (This is a bit of Feminine Moral Philosophy: When Mum hides her face, the child is abandoned and free-falling.) But with everlasting kindness will I have compassion on you, says your redeemer, Hashem.

For this is as the waters of Noah to me; For as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more flood over the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be wrath with you or rebuke you.

(Best part) For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, neither shall my covenant of peace be removed, says your care giver Hashem."         Isaiah 54:8-10

Being made in the image of God, we are trying to imitate Him. We all have to be care givers and not withdraw our loving gaze over all who pass by us, in whatever mood we are or with whatever mask that other person is donning---they need our help.

What is helping? Sometimes spoiling a child leads to gluttony and that is why we need to guide children to grow up to be givers. Setting limits is not to be confused with withdrawing love. It is precisely in setting standards as G-d has set for all humanity and by informing them and teaching them the laws contained in this Parasha, along with Parshat Kedoshim and Parshat Noach, that we let them grasp what it means to be a mensch.

We can learn by experience from all the behaviours we see performed around us and the choices we ourselves have made. We should be in touch with a glow inside us when we see a pure act of kindness. Be it little or big, when we do one or when we receive that special genuine care, this is our bio feedback of approval. We should feel the shame of guilt when we have minimised the worth of another person just because we can't be bothered to go out of our own way to help. Yes, experience gained in the field helps but we also look to the Torah in an effort to learn explicitly how to look through the eyes of a mensch and to guide our way in our quest to be one.

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