Ki Tetzei 5781 – An Explosion of Mitzvot

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

We’ve all seen live fireworks at one time or another. And as we know, there are typically one or two shots at a time, with colors from the one fading before another is launched into the darkened sky. And then, near the end, what happens? Right – a whole bunch of the various types of fireworks are shot up around the same time for the grand finale. A explosion of colors and sounds.

So it is with mitzvot in the Torah. There is a continuing trickle of mitzvot throughout the parashiot. You shall do this. You are forbidden to do that. So before today’s parashah, Gd must have said to Moses, “Moshe, listen, we’re running out of time. It’s almost the end of summer. We better step on the gas and finish this up, if you know what I mean.” And so here is Ki Tetzei, with fully 72 of the 613 mitzvot that we find in the whole torah!

There is a diversity of mitzvot this week, such as sins of a sexual or quasi sexual nature. Lots of these, such as the proper treatment of a female prisoner for whom one has lust, the prohibition against cross-dressing, compensation for violating a virgin and the removal of oneself from the family unit after a nocturnal emission (as though men have control over such occurrences!). There are sins within the family structure such as the stoning to death of a wayward child, and assorted other stuff – commandments such as the proper treatment of workers, and how many times one may be flogged for breaking the law. (Does anyone know the maximum number of lashes for a sin? Forty.)

Etz Chaim comments in its introduction to this week’s parashah, that all these laws reflect the theme of the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being. To me, this high-minded pronouncement is not true at all. We’ve all been troubled by various passages in the Torah, such as happened a few weeks ago when Pinchus was lauded for impaling a sexually promiscuous Israelite and his Moabite consort. But then again, some justification seems to be needed for all the laws this week, so Etz Chaim offers theirs, perhaps knowing that most readers don’t get past their introduction.

Ah, the Christians have it so easy. The 10 commandments, believe in Jesus, and all live an everlasting life! You can see this week why they have taken issue with the “Old Testament,” as they call the Torah.

While it is true that there are some very concrete examples of how humans are to be treated with dignity, this parashah is a bit discombobulated in its compilation of laws. What it does say to me is that we Jews care about details. The big details and the very small details of daily living.

The rules as stated here are meant to be of help in the building of a just society. So for instance, robbers who repent must of course be punished, but then, they must be allowed to live their lives without further labelling or punishment. Not every crime, when repentance and compensation take place, merits a life-long grudge or castigation from society.

Sexual acts in which there are certain types of indiscretion may be wrong and must be punished, but these acts and their punishment are far different from cases of rape.

And the treatment of animals, as clumsily though it may be stated, and as obscure as the lesson might be here, is still important, and must be a reflection of our humanity. Even the treatment of prisoners is discussed, though perhaps in a bit of an obscure way.

Family relationships are also touched upon. If we ignore the preposterous permission given for stoning to death a child who is incorrigibly deficient in his behavior and repeatedly commits misdeeds, we find a humanity that had not previously been conveyed in ancient society.

Finally, and very importantly, we are asked to let go of our hate and our enmity for others. It is, after all, ultimately corrosive to those who carry a grudge. I’m often told by patients about their frustrations at work – often involving how they are treated. What I usually say to my patient is that the offending person – a customer, coworker or boss – they don’t know you well enough to dislike you, so the real problem is with them – not with you. So don’t carry a grudge – it will harm you more than anyone else.

So while there is much here to be a bit scornful about, we find an underlying quest for society to “get it right” and for people to be sensitive to and respectful of others. Look at these various mitzvot. What is the underlying theme here? It is that we must be subject to strict behavior when it comes to dealing with others. In Judaism, you are what you do.

And then something that to me seems strange happens right at the end of the parashah. No more pretense about love for your fellow person. No more about how to treat others, how to protect the dignity of workers or the removal from the congregation of any male with crushed testes (Don’t ask me!). No more about the proper handling of a neighbor’s fallen ox. Forget even about the dictate that children are not to be punished for the sins of their parents.

At the very end, the final 3 verses remind us of what Amelek did to us – how, when we were leaving Egypt and were weary, he cut down the stragglers in our rear. And therefore, after our journey is completed, and we are in the Promised Land, we are to blot out his memory. Lo tishcoch – do not forget!

With the limited knowledge of Amelek and his troops, Rabbi Sacks, in one of his weekly parashah commentaries launched into a diatribe about antisemitism, for goodness sake. Now, admittedly, I know very little about Amelek and the motives behind his attack on the Jews. But honestly, I think there are examples that would serve as much better springboards for a discussion about antisemitism than an assault that occurred as our people left Egypt.

So all in all, while a bit clumsy in its coherence and a bit dated (ya think?) the parashah is the latest in a seemingly unending stream of attempts by our people – the Jewish people – to “get it right.” And we can certainly puff out our chests in pride over the attempt. Frederick Neitsche, the 19th century German philosopher and well-known antisemite said that, “The Jews bring to society their debilitating ethics and morality.” Debilitating ethics and morality. After reading Ki Tetzei and so many other parashiot: I am, proudly, guilty as charged.