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Torah Sparks

September 17, 2005 - 13 Elul 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 21:10 - 23:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 - 10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19, the sixth in the book. It coincides with the fifth of seven Shabbatot of Consolation that follow Tisha B'Av and precede Rosh Hashanah.


Ki Tetze continues Moshe's review of the laws given by God to the Israelites in preparation for their entering the Promised Land. It contains one of the largest, most diverse collections of laws, including some found nowhere else in the Torah. (For example, the law concerning making a protective railing around one's roof to avoid falls, found in 22:8. See below!). The groups of laws found here include family laws, laws concerning executed criminals, domestic laws, laws about marital and sexual misconduct, forbidden relationships, as well as a lot of other social, cultic, poverty, and family legislation.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone, (lit. "the one who falls"), should fall from it. (22:8)

  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 41b - Rabbi Nathan taught, "From what biblical text do we learn that a person should not raise a bad tempered dog or use a rickety ladder in his home? From the following: SO THAT YOU DO NOT BRING BLOODGUILT UPON YOUR HOUSE.
  • From Maimonides, (Spain and Egypt, 1135-1204) Mishneh Torah: Laws Concerning Murderers And Physical Protection, 11:4-5) - Not only must a roof be secured (to keep people from falling off of it) but in fact one is commanded to secure anything which could potentially endanger a person's life… We are commanded to take precautions with anything that could cause danger to life… One who is negligent about removing anything that could endanger the safety of others violates a positive commandment to protect life as well as the prohibition, DO NOT BRING BLOODGUILT UPON YOUR HOUSE.
  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 32a - (Preface: Why would the Torah describe a person falling from a roof as "the one who falls"? He has not yet fallen, so describing him this way is very strange. The school of Rabbi Yishmael will explain this anomalous verse in the following way.)

    The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: IF "THE ONE WHO FALLS" SHOULD FALL FROM IT means that this individual had already been destined by God to fall from your roof since the creation of the world (for his sins). For, he has not yet fallen, yet the text refers to him as if he already had done so. (Even so, if you the owner of the house do not put a parapet around your roof, you will still be held liable for his death, because we can read our verse to mean: "THE ONE WHO FALLS" WILL FALL MIMENU - "ON ACCOUNT OF HIM, THE OWNER" NOT "FROM IT, THE ROOF".) And we learn that merit comes about through meritorious people, (i.e., those who follow the law of rooftop fences), while punishment comes about through those deserving of punishment, (i.e., those who fail to follow the law).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. This rule about a rooftop fence to prevent people from falling off is found in the Torah in this one place only. In the ancient Middle East roofs were flat, not slanted, and people often slept, ate and socialized on rooftops. If you go to Israel today you will see that much roofing is flat.
  2. Jewish law is very strict about preservation of life, even to the point of punishing a person who fails to protect himself from danger on the grounds that his safety is his business. How do we draw the legal and moral line between the individual's right to privacy and society's compelling interest in preserving that person's life? (Think about the debate concerning physician assisted suicide and the recent Terry Schiavo case.)
  3. Emerging from the Tractate Shabbat passage is the very interesting tension between "fatalism" and freedom. On the one hand, a person destined by God to fall from your roof is in God's hands, not yours. On the other hand, you still have to guard him from falling, on the chance that you can overturn his destiny and save his life; otherwise, his preordained falling becomes your responsibility for your negligence.
  4. Thinking about this passage, we are led to ask: is anything really preordained by God in human affairs, especially given our capacity to repent? What does Jewish tradition mean when it asserts that everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven? (See the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 33b.)
  5. What are the legal and social policy implications of this teaching of the House of Rabbi Yishmael? (Hint: think about some peoples' arguments that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor, and therefore the state, its resources and tax dollars, are not responsible for them.)

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

(Connect these verses to part one of the Torah portion section.)

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (25:17-19)

  • From Maimonides, (1138-1204, Spain, Morocco, and Egypt): Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Kings, 5:5 and 6:4 - Obliterating the memory of the Amalekites is a positive commandment, as it is written in the Torah, "YOU SHALL BLOT OUT THE MEMORY OF Amalek FROM UNDER HEAVEN. "… Remembering the Amalekites' evil behavior… is also a positive commandment, as it is written, "REMEMBER WHAT Amalek DID TO YOU…" Rabbinic tradition teaches us that we should remember Amalek through recitation of these words of the Torah aloud, and that we should never forget Amalek in our hearts. We are forbidden to forget Amalek's hatred for us.

    This commandment (to obliterate the Amalekites) only applies to those who refuse to surrender to us in battle and to accept the seven Noachide laws of universal moral conduct.
  • From Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany 1040-1104) - REMEMBER WHAT Amalek DID TO YOU: (This passage about Amalek comes right after the law about using just weights and measures in your business dealings to teach you that) if you act deceptively by using unjust weights and measures, then you must be prepared to be provoked by your enemies.
  • From Sefer Oheiv Yisrael, (The Hasidic Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Poland, died 1825) - The deeper meaning of remembering Amalek is this. Even if a person's clinging to God is so great, and his heart burns like fire to serve God, he should be extremely careful to give no room for the evil "Amalek" that lurks within. The spark of the evil inclination is buried in every human heart. No matter how high a level of spirituality a person thinks(s) he has attained, our lustful urges can be awakened suddenly by that inclination. We must be extremely careful at all times to blot out the memory of this "inner Amalek" from our hearts.

Questions for Discussion:

(You can review the story about Amalek's attack against the Israelites in Exodus 17:8-16.)

  1. We are commanded to remember Amalek in two different ways and to blot out Amalek's memory. What psychological and moral wisdom might the Torah be offering to us here about how we deal with the traumas of evil doing after the fact?
  2. There are no more Amalekites today, the tribe having been lost in history millennia ago. We fulfill these commandments of remembering and blotting out the memory of Amalek by reading this passage from Deuteronomy on the Shabbat before Purim and by making noise over the name of Haman during the reading of the Megillah on that holiday. What is Haman's connection to Amalek? (Hint: See 1st Samuel, ch. 15 and Esther, ch. 3 - Who is Haman descended from?) Note how Maimonides qualifies the obligation to destroy the Amalekites by giving these long lost enemies of ours a theoretical "out" that would spare them. What moral or theological problems might he have had with this Torah passage that motivated him to interpret it in this way?
  3. Rashi sees a moral lesson in the juxtaposition of the Amalek passage with the commandment about just business dealings, (25:13-16). God will punish us for injustice by sending our enemies against us. Discuss your opinions about this idea.
  4. Rabbi Heschel relocates Amalek to within each of us: our potential to do evil is the inner Amalek, and we must blot out "the memory" of that inner demon. Is this possible? Isn't Rabbi Heschel calling for a level of spiritual and moral attainment that no one could achieve? Is the inner Amalek ever a good thing? 7. Many Jews find the Amalek passage very disturbing because, despite the fact that Amalek no longer exists, it calls for an eternal, genocidal vendetta against our enemy, instead of forgiveness. Given what you know about history, Jewish values, and the sources we have learned, how would you respond to this concern?

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