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Ki Tetze

In this parasha, Moses outlines and reviews a wide range of commandments, including laws relating to the captive women, the rebellious son, returning lost items, building a fence around the roof, tzitzit, the laws of adultery and rape, divorce, the childless widow, and remembering Amalek.

Another voice

Ki Tetze by Gershon Winkler :: 5768

Gershon Winkler is a scholar in the fields of Jewish law, lore, theology, and mysticism. A descendant of a rabbis originating in Judea, Rabbi Winkler has devoted much of the past two decades to writing and teaching about the lesser-promulgated wisdoms of Judaism and Hebraic scriptural interpretation. He has published fourteen books since 1980, four of which have seen several printings.

This portion of our Torah is a continuation of a seemingly endless stream of instructions that appear quite paradoxical, and at best utterly confounding. They run from compassionate laws around the treatment of laborers to crude consequences for adulterous affairs. In the same breath that we are told to not muzzle our oxen while plowing our fields, we are told to stone to death hopelessly rebellious adolescents. And so it goes, on and on.

So, what gives? How do we understand this unpredictable, inconsistent aspect of our holy Torah, about which it is said: "Her ways are ways of peace, and all of her roads are roads of pleasantness"? (Mish’lei 3:17). Granted, that many of these instructions were monumental breakthroughs for 1300 B.C.E.. 'Until the nineteenth century,' wrote historian Cecil Roth, 'cruelty to animals was nowhere illegal, except in Jewish law'. (The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, pp. 343f). And while the highly-lauded ancient Hammurabi Code prescribed death to anyone who harbored a runaway slave, the equally ancient Hebrew Code commands to the contrary: 'You shall not surrender to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you' (Devarim 23:16-17).

But what about the other stuff? How do we reconcile our seemingly compassionate Torah and all of its super-humane sensitivities with the seeming crude injunctions that also fill its folios?

Perhaps the answer lies in the one about sending off the hen before snatching the chicks from a nest (Devarim 22:6). The 12th-century Rabbi Moshe Ibn Maimon explains the law as a way of teaching us to feel compassion, and to become aware that animals, too, have feelings (Mo'rah Ne'vuchim, Ch. 3), and the 13th-century Rabbi Moshe Ibn Nachmon explains it as a way of teaching us to be compassionate (Ramban on Devarim 22:6). Big difference. Compassion, in other words, is a nice thing to feel. But more challenging is the practice of being compassionate, of acting with compassion in all situations, not only the ones that make us feel merciful because we can "empathize" or it touches a "soft spot", but even those situations where there is little or no room or no time for empathy or soft spots -- to act with compassion even then.

The Torah is not interested in teaching you to feel compassion, but rather how to live compassionately. Feelings are situational, subjective, personal, and contingent upon individual whims and judgments. Moreover, we don't need divine revelation to instruct us to feel what we are naturally inclined to feel. What we do need divine revelation to teach us is how to draw upon our feelings and apply them beyond our subjective selves toward a higher calling, in response to a higher will. That is the mixed message of our Torah. Can you act with severity when necessary without losing your compassion? Can you flog someone who has been sentenced to be flogged, without losing sight of his dignity? (Devarim 25:3). Can you execute a murderer and act compassionately toward his corpse (Devarim 21:23)? Can you stigmatize compassionately? The ancient rabbis modeled this when they taught that the order of calling people up to the Torah during worship, is: "Ko’hain, Levite, Israelite. But if the choice is an ignorant Ko'hain or a learned mamzer, the learned mamzer takes precedence!" (Talmud Bavli, Ho’ra’yot 13a). Can you hold both, the disqualification and the virtue? Can you act with severity while maintaining your compassion? And vice-versa? Can you love your child and say No? As the 2nd-century Rabbi El’azar warned: "One who acts compassionately in a situation requiring severity will in the end act with severity in a situation deserving of compassion" (Midrash Tanchuma, Metso’ra, Ch. 1).

In other words: Can you dance in the Grey? Or can you only thrive in the black-and-white? Can you frolic in the chasm of paradox or can you only play in the safe realm of either/or? That is the challenge. As Solomon put it some 2900 years ago: "It is a good thing if you can hold on to both [opposites] without releasing your grip on either." (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] 7:15-18).


More by Gershon Winkler

Another voice by Flora Hoori

As a teenager, I wasn't always the most obedient child… I argued with my mother, challenged authority and thought on occasion that I knew better. I was reminded of this when I saw that in Ki Tetze we read about the rebellious son. While the rebellion many of us experience as teenagers (and as parents of teenagers) may not be for the sake of heaven, I wonder where we might be without rebellion in civil society? Where would society be without those who refuse to accept the status quo, without those who challenge and force change from below on the powers that be? The rebellions of those who lobby government about the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK, those who tirelessly recycle and give up their cars to do their bit to slow climate change; those who quietly and without fuss carry out acts of kindness and chesed, often without being asked, with no thought of public acknowledgment, when countless others look the other way rather than help these rebellions, in their own way are all for the sake of heaven.


More by Flora Hoori

Other Divrei Torah on Ki Tetze

  • 5766 (Daniel Vulkan)
  • 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5767 (David Solomon)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Daniel Vulkan)
  • 5769 (Peta Pellach)
  • 5770 (Anthony Ashworth-Steen)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5771 (Nathan Abrams)
  • 5772 (Toni Rickenback)
  • 5772 (Limmud On One Leg Team)
  • 5773 (Marc Saperstein)
  • 5774 (Jessica Shafrin)
  • 5774 (Adam Moscoe)