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Parashat Ki Tetze
September 6, 2014 – 11 Elul 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Dozens of rules are explained in this portion. Many involve rules of family: the accumulation of new wives, rewarding deserving children and punishing disobedient children, Levirate marriage, and basic guidelines of divorce and re-marriage. Some involve personal intimacy: adultery, prostitution, and premarital relations. Some involve ritual purity: such as limits on who may enter the Divine sanctuary, wearing appropriate clothes, and not using mixed seeds and textiles. Others involve limits on punishment: administering lashes to people and pain to animals. Still others speak of economic matters: including paying wages in a timely fashion, caring for the poor and dealing honestly in business.

The parasha culminates in the national imperative to remember Amalek and to completely wipe it out from the earth.


Theme #1: Men (and Women) of War

When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright ... (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

This specific scenario sets a limit on the brutality of war and spoils thereof.

The Torah’s language (verse 10) is in the singular, for it directs itself to the fact that a man has no greater enemy than the evil impulse. -- The Ba’al Shem Tov

In the battle with the evil impulse, according to [Talmud] Berachot 5a: [Rabbi Levi ben Hannah says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish:] A person should always incite the good impulse to fight against the evil impulse. “When you go out to battle against your enemy” -- when you challenge the evil impulse to battle; “And Adonai your God delivers him into your hands” -- when someone comes to purify himself, [Heaven] helps him; and even more than this, “And you take him captive,” the captive that the evil impulse has captured by tricking you [that is, the evil impulse has “got you” by the sins you’ve committed -- you effectively capture them back. And the sins that are in your hand, you turn into merits, as our sages, their memory is a blessing, have said: “Great is teshuvah, for [through it] sins are transformed into merits.” -- Isaiah ben Abraham HaLevi Horowitz, Ha-Shelah

The crucial [issue] is the man’s intent [in capturing a woman in battle]. If he views the woman as an object from the outset -- his slave, the spoils of war -- so she remains. But if he treats her as a person, as his betrothed, he owes her the honor shown a wife. She has in effect “converted” to marry him, shearing off her prior identity and mourning her old life. To cast her out after that would be tantamount to murder. -- Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Questions for Discussion:

The Ba’al Shem Tov interprets the language in the beginning of the Torah portion as proof that war tends to bring out the worst in humanity, and soldiers are challenged by confronting their evil inclination. Does the brutality of war explain challenges many soldiers face in their lives after their time in combat is complete? What level of responsibility do we have in taking care of our veterans?

Isaiah ben Abraham HaLevi Horowitz continues the Ba’al Shem Tov’s idea that the brutality of war can have long-term consequences for those who engage in it. Yet many societies, perhaps in an effort to thank soldiers for their tremendous sacrifices, tend to glorify war, especially military victories. How can society honor veterans while, at the same time, communicate the idea that war is a last resort?

Ellen Frankel notes that the soldier in this anecdote risks objectifying the woman he desires, and that the rules of our Torah portion are meant to prevent this feeling. While the directives for dealing with the captured woman are thoughtful, there are still many aspects of our society that objectifies women to the detriment of everyone. What other tools do we need in our communities to establish respectful treatment of women?

Theme #2: Rail the Roof!

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 should fall from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)

The concept of building “fences” around the Torah comes from this very image; there is a parallel between protection of one’s home and protection of the commandments.

The mitzvah of the ma’akeh [guardrail] teaches that a house must do more than just protect people from the basic elements. Rather, a house should protect people, to the greatest degree possible, from all potential danger. Concern for human life must, literally, be built into the fabric of the home. … [An] expansive interpretation would suggest that homes must also offer a safe place for children to play and should not be a place in which there is little protection against violence. In the past decades, we have seen the dangerous conditions created by large public housing units built without significant open space, well-lighted hallways, or other communal gathering points. A home that does not protect its residents against physical danger, we might say, is a home built without a ma’akeh. -- Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy

In this text the form of execution is not specifically named; instead, there is reference to “bloodguilt” (damim, the plural form of the word for blood), a term that indicates that the perpetrator must die, without specifying whether the community of God will carry out the execution. The Code of Hammurabi has a parallel case: the builder hired to construct a house (probably for the upper classes since peasants generally built their own homes) is liable, life for life, for damages caused by a collapse (nn. 229-231). If the collapse kills the owner, his child, or his slaves, then, respectively, the builder, his child, or his slave is to be killed. -- Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible

Earlier it is written [in verse 7], “so that it will be good for you”, and juxtaposed here is the verse, “if the falling one will fall from it”. This is an allusion to what the Sages have expounded concerning a person who climbed a tree in order to send away the mother bird and fell to his death. Where are these one’s prolonged days? Rather, “so that … you will have prolonged days” in a world that is wholly prolonged. “So that it will be good for you” in the world that is wholly good. -- Ba’al HaTurim on Deuteronomy 22:8

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains the requirement of the ma’akeh as an example of an ethical imperative becoming a religious standard. To what extent can mitzvot be considered ethical imperative? This rule is an example of Jewish values permeating what would seem to be everyday decisions. Should Judaism permeate our every decision in order to stay relevant? Is it sensible that if religious ethics should impact architecture, it should impact just about everything else?

Knight and Levine tell us that the concept of “bloodguilt,” while clear in the Code of Hammurabi, is somewhat vague in the Torah. Is it possible that the punishment for which a homeowner without a ma’akeh is liable was left deliberately vague so that future Israelite communities could decide its proper punishment? The Torah does not always fully explain all of the mitzvot and their potential consequences. Is this one of those times?

Ba’al HaTurim explains that the Torah makes a distinction between having “prolonged days” and something that “will be good for you”; it is an acknowledgment that a longer life does not necessarily guarantee a better life. As humans live longer and longer lives today, how do we ensure that these longer lives are filled with meaning?

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