Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
Parashat Ki Teitzei focuses in large part on how we categorize the people and decisions in our lives. The Torah portion opens and closes with sections that analyze those who are on our side and those who are not. Interestingly, sometimes individuals are able to transcend one category, such as “other” or “enemy,” and enter a new one, such as “wife” or “ally.” Yet in other situations, the definitions are fixed and irreversible.
The portion opens with the case of a female captive who is desired by her captor. The Torah states that she must be treated respectfully and become the man’s wife before he can “possess” her. If he then changes his mind about her, he must release her outright and not sell her for money — she is no longer to be considered a slave. She has changed categories, from prisoner to free woman.
Conversely, the final section of the portion depicts the opposite dynamic. We are reminded that Amalek and his descendants are the eternal enemy of the Jews, so much so that we are commanded to blot out their memory. Their evil is depicted as extreme, evidenced by their heartless attacks on stragglers when the Hebrews were fleeing Egypt, and thus they are assigned a fixed status.
The reference to the Exodus serves to remind us of our own unique category — the bearers of an eternal covenant with God. With that comes the special responsibility for, among other things compassion and social justice. We must personify the very opposite of Amalek and demonstrate empathy for the weaker or less fortunate in our very being and behavior, for we ourselves changed categories from “slaves” to “free people.” Remember, Amalek lives today in the world at large–and within us.
The central part of Ki Teitzei deals with our many choices of how to act and the implication that the more power we have, the more responsibility we then have, and the higher the standard to which we will be held. The decision tree of “if X, then Y” appears to be a universal law, whether in the physical or spiritual world. God, the ultimate source of all distinctions and consequences, is also portrayed as the One who writes the “job descriptions” for all segments of all branches of creation.
As in all the examples described in Ki Teitzei, special categories are linked with special responsibilities and parallel justice systems. Drawing boundaries and making rules is key to freedom, to creating order, and to understanding the world. This tendency toward definitions and limits is also the activity of special occasions and everyday life alike. Namely, we must all make continual distinctions among people, animals, behaviors, circumstances, ethics, consequences, time, etc. in order to function personally and socially. Things have gotten more complicated than when Adam was naming the animals in the Garden of Eden, and only had to keep a handful of categories/rules in mind (Tree of Knowledge—No!; Tree of Life—No!).
Some of the distinctions and consequences flowing from key decisions touched on in Ki Teitzei include:
How We Interact with Others
Whom do I love or not love, and what is my responsibility to those in each of these categories? Which categories am I commanded to treat with loving kindness, even if I don’t love them? Those with fewer decisions, less power, less responsibility: the impoverished; orphans; widows; strangers; runaway slaves. We must feed, respect, and protect these groups; pay their wages promptly; provide for them privately so as not to shame them.
Is my child obedient or not? What is the proper response to poor behavior, on an individual level or community perspective?
Where does one cross the line between propriety and criminality when dealing with criminal matters? (e.g., how long is appropriate to display the dead body of an executed criminal? How can we protect the public dignity of the convicted even while punishing them?)
If one chooses to become a homeowner, what then becomes their responsibility to protect someone on their property? (He is now responsible to anticipate what could happen in addition to what does happen: so he is commanded to build a fence on his roof to prevent someone from falling.)
Is one commanded to have integrity even if the other person does not know he is being exploited? Absolutely yes; businesspeople must have only one set of accurate and honest measures, not alternate weights used to cheat the unsuspecting customer. The other person’s level of knowledge is not the measure of one’s integrity: one is honest or not honest, whether or not the other person is aware of it.
Does a woman cross from being responsible for rape to not being responsible if she cries out during it–and what constitutes rape, virginity, or lack thereof, anyway? When does victimization of an individual become a community’s responsibility?
Does someone move from being a whole person to being less than a human being if they lose a body part? Does it depend on what body part or how it was lost? (The answer could appear to be yes: no one whose testes are crushed–and there’s even more detail–shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; a woman who grabs the genitals of her husband’s attacker can have her hand cut off.)
Does being born to the wrong parents or under the wrong conditions make someone less of a person? How long is long enough to suffer? (Mamzers, the offspring of adultery or incest, are excluded from the people of Israel even through ten generations. Again, a seeming contradiction–for parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children put to death for parents: a person can only be put to death for their own crime.)
Who is in the category of being marriageable or not? (Lots of examples for this one; follow the bouncing ball carefully!)
When is something only partially yours, instead of completely yours or completely not yours (e.g., when reaping, if you leave wheat or olives in the field, do not go back and pick them up, but leave them for the poor, orphaned, and widowed)? Sometimes it is just too much darn responsibility to actually own something anyway (especially slaves).
How We Interact with Nature
Should I be kind to an animal even if it is inconvenient for me? (Yes: do not take a mother bird together with her eggs; help an ass or ox that has fallen on the road; do not have an ox and ass plow together; do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.) Interestingly, both the merciful human decision-maker and the animal stand to benefit from compassionate action (one from the thought process itself and the other from the specific action taken). Empathy has reciprocal power, enhancing the life quality of both giver and receiver.
What is the natural order of things and how can I preserve that? (For example, we see the injunction for each sex not to wear the clothing of the other.)
What responsibility should we take when we create something new? We seem to be commanded not to create categories or combinations of categories that do not exist naturally: do not wear cloth combining wool and linen; do not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed.
How We Relate to God
Should one speak a vow and create an obligation to God one must fulfill, or should one refrain from speaking and thus from creating?
When is one pure or impure? Does illness have the power to move someone from one category into another, beyond from healthy to unhealthy? Exodus is referenced again, alluding to Miriam’s leprosy and its role in God’s purifying her of past misdeeds. Is suffering itself an unadulterated bad thing? What is its role in forcing us to choose categories of action, whether of change or acceptance?
Understandably, much of Ki Tetze feels counterintuitive and/or ambiguous–like many of life’s moral dilemmas. It appears to be more important to wrestle with such issues about how to structure and categorize our decisions and their consequences than to actually come up with specific answers to all the challenges we will face on our journeys.
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Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.