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Torah Sparks

September 10, 2011– 4 Elul 5771

Annual: Deut. 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deut. 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 Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Sefer Ha-Chinuch counts 74 individual mitzvot in Parashat Ki Tetzei, though that number is disputed more than such counts in any other Torah portion. Among the commandments and legal categories addressed are the following: the treatment of women taken captive in time of war; the immutability of the birthright; the draconian treatment of the “stubborn and rebellious son”; judicial hangings; the return of lost property; the obligation to assist the owner of an animal that has fallen under its burden; the prohibition against wearing clothing that is intended for the opposite sex and characteristic of it; the commandment to chase off a mother bird before taking its eggs or its young and the reward for fulfilling this imperative; the requirement to build a parapet on your roof and to remove analogous safety hazards from your property; the prohibitions against sowing a vineyard with diverse species, plowing with an ox and ass yoked together, and shaatnez (wearing garments in which wool and linen are combined); the commandment to wear fringes; laws about slander; the procedure followed when a newlywed husband alleges his wife was not a virgin as claimed and the consequences of such claims, whether they are unfounded or accurate; the legal ramifications of adultery and rape and a variety of marital restrictions; conduct and sanitation in a military camp (“keeping the camp holy” would later be expanded into a general mandate to establish worthy communities); the treatment to be accorded an escaped slave; sexual conduct deemed immoral and therefore prohibited; the prohibition against usury; mandates about vows; the legal parameters guiding someone working in a vineyard or field of crops; the fundamental laws of divorce; the special obligations and military exemption attending the first year of marriage; the securing of a debt; the legal treatment of kidnapping; the authority of priests in cases of leprosy; the commandment to remember God’s punishment of Miriam after to her ill-advised criticism of Moses; the fair treatment of laborers and the obligation to provide prompt payment of workers. Fundamental legal principles are addressed: individual responsibility and the principle that people are punished only for their own sins, not the sin of their parents or children; the obligation to deal justly with the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. The obligation to provide justice for society’s most vulnerable finds specific expression in the requirement to leave forgotten sheaves and gleanings for the desperate poor. A maximum of forty lashes is established in cases of judicial flogging. Concern for animals is given expression through the prohibition against muzzling a plow animal at work, keeping it from eating. The law of levirate marriage and its circumvention by the ritual of chalitzah is introduced. Harsh consequences are provided in the case of a woman who violently intervenes in her husband’s physical altercation with another man (as the King James Version euphemistically puts it, she “taketh” the antagonist “by the secrets”). Scripture prescribes amputation of her hand – the only penal mutilation in the Torah, not surprisingly commuted to a punitive fine in rabbinic law. The requirement of honest weights and measures, and the more general principle of integrity in commerce are detailed. The parashah concludes with the requirement to “remember what Amalek did” – that bellicose nation’s merciless attack on the weakest parts of the Israelite camp. Israel is to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” These final verses are read as the eponymic maftir aliyah on Shabbat Zachor, just before Purim.

Theme #1: “Smitten”

“When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married.” Deuteronomy 24:5

Study: Derash

“’He must cause his wife to be happy,’ as in Targum Onkelos (using the causative form of the verb). And Targum Yonatan, which translates, ‘He must rejoice with his wife,’ is incorrect.” Rashi

“By envisioning a year of uninterrupted courtship after the wedding, the Torah was seeking to blend two distinct personalities into a harmonious union for life. And that is precisely the goal the Torah had set for itself when it coupled marriage with creation at the beginning. Marriage is a form of restoration. A partnership based on utilitarian considerations can never end our existential loneliness. For husband and wife ever to merge into one, their relationship must be cemented by love.” Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

“Judaism prescribes a yearlong honeymoon period, though not in the sense of a Champagne-glass-shaped Jacuzzi and a heart-shaped bed. In biblical times a newlywed husband was excused from the army in order to be free to ‘gladden the woman he married.’ The first year together is in many ways the hardest. Synchronizing two personalities is no easy task, and new couples will benefit from building a solid foundation of intimacy early on.” Rivka C. Berman

“Strike an average between what a woman thinks of her husband a month before she marries him and what she thinks of him a year afterward, and you will have the truth about him.” H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques, 1916

“The first year of marriage is like wet cement — the impressions made in it are much harder to change once it has set.” Robert Wolgemuth, The Most Important Year in a Woman’s Life/The Most Important Year in a Man’s Life

Questions for Discussion

Rashi insists that the Torah imposes an obligation on a newly married man to assure the happiness of his wife, rather than himself finding happiness together with her. What support for this interpretation is to be found in the scriptural demand for military deferment? Is Rashi’s difference in understanding than Targum Yonatan a significant moral (and practical) distinction?

If the first year of marriage, addressed by our text, is not a matter of “a Champagneglass shaped Jacuzzi and a heart-shaped bed” – that is, a function of physical enjoyment and conjugal passion – how might the mitzvah prescribed by our verse most effectively and meaningfully be achieved? How do we “give happiness” to those we love most… those to whom we have made sacred commitments?

American essayist and acerbic satirist H.L. Mencken and evangelical Christian publisher Robert Wolgemuth make essentially the same point! The Torah is correct. The first year of marriage is absolutely essential to “cementing” the mutual understanding and relationship of husband and wife. If you were given a year to establish the truth of who you are and how you will be remembered – to change how you are perceived – what would you do?

Using the same metaphor as Wolgemuth, Chancellor Schorsch writes that a successful marital bond must be “cemented by love.” What other indispensible ingredients allow loving partners truly “to merge into one”?

Does marriage – does love – truly require “synchronizing two personalities,” as Rivka C. Berman asserts? To what extent may partners in a loving union remain independent actors and personalities, with sometimes conflicting opinions, views, and values?

Theme #2: “Smitten”

“Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” Deuteronomy 24:9

Study: Derash

“The Torah relates (Numbers 12:1-15) how Miriam spoke against her younger brother Moses for neglecting his wife. Miriam felt that the fact that Moses was a prophet was not an excuse for his behavior. ‘Is it only to Moses that God speaks? Does He not also speak to us?’…Far worse than her sin of slander, Miriam erred in her evaluation of the nature of Moses’ prophecy. Had Moses been just a regular prophet, Miriam would have been correct in her criticism. But in fact, Moses’ prophetic vision was on a higher plane than common prophecy. Moses’ vision was not distorted and murky, but crystal-clear, As a result, the Five Books of Moses are on a higher level than the other books of the Bible. No prophet may challenge or contradict Moses’ prophecies. It is for this reason that we are admonished to remember Miriam’s punishment for speaking against Moses. By recalling her mistake, we are reminded to appreciate the unique nature of Moses’ prophetic vision.” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook

“‘If you wish to guard yourself against being stricken with leprosy, do not speak slander.’ This is Rashi's language. And in my opinion this actually is a positive commandment, like ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:8); ‘Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt’ (13:3); ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (25:17) – which all are commandments. If so, this verse, too, is like those, it being an admonition against speaking slander. He commanded by way of a positive precept that we remember the great punishment that God inflicted upon the righteous prophetess who spoke only about her brother upon whom she had bestowed her mercy and whom she loved as herself. And she spoke nothing wrong to his face, but only in private, between herself and her holy brother (Aaron). Yet all her good deeds were of no avail to her!” Ramban

“Even as we remember Miriam’s punishment, we might remember her leadership and her initiative, her inspiration and her caring.” Rabbi Gilah Dror

“Recalling Miriam’s misdeed is especially valuable today. Nowadays, through the power of electronic instant communication, words can be sent to millions of people in microseconds. If these words are negative, they can harm individuals instantly, without even the possibility of recourse or recall. Not a day goes by when we do not receive emails or read Internet reports which damage reputations of individuals, without due process and without the remotest possibility of defending themselves. Imagine if emails were limited to complimentary statements and words of praise. Imagine if the blogs and websites were replete with stories of human accomplishment, altruism, and heroism. It would be a happier world for sure. And it would be a world closer to that which the Almighty intended.” Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

Questions for Discussion

The Torah calls upon us to remember six things. These zechirot are listed in many traditional siddurim. We are to remember the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, the attack against Israel by Amalek, the rebelliousness of the wilderness generation, Shabbat, and the punishment of Miriam. How does remembering what God did to Miriam compare to these other religious imperatives?

As the Rabbinical Assembly’s president, Rabbi Gilah Dror, points out, there is much that is positive to remember about Miriam. Why does our parashah insist that we remember her moment of personal failure and disgrace? What other single event in her life would you consider defining and worthy of commemoration?

Miriam’s cup has become a fixture at an increasing number of seder tables. Through this contemporary ritual, we remember Miriam’s role in the liberation from slavery as we focus on her role in the redemption of Israel. How might the mitzvah of remembering the low point of Miriam’s career also enhance our understanding of the exodus and add to our observance of Passover?

Rav Kook teaches that the commandment to remember Miriam’s punishment is a function of Moses’ greatness, while Ramban seems to demonstrate that this religious obligation reflects her personal stature –the greatness of Miriam herself. What other aggravating circumstances might account for the severity with which Miriam’s act was handled and the urgency with which its commemoration is required?

Historic Note

Parashat Ki Tetzei, read on September 10, 2011, adjures us to “remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished, and cut down all the stragglers.” On September 10, 1882, the “Congress for Safeguarding of Non-Jewish Interests,” an international conference aimed at the promotion of anti-Semitism, first convened in Dresden, Germany.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Parashat Ki Tetzei prescribes an obligation to safeguard the safety of those around us: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood upon your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has applied this principle to statemandated immunizations that required for admission to school: “Vaccination against infectious disease is the pharmaceutical equivalent of the biblically mandated parapet, designed effectively to shield potential victims from sudden fall, injury, and death. Immunization against infectious disease is thus logically rendered obligatory.” According to the Shulchan Aruch (Hoshen Mishpat 427:7-8): “For any hazard of mortal peril, it is a positive commandment to remove it, to keep away from it, and to be especially careful in regard to the matter. If one fails to remove the condition, leaving the hazards and the dangers they present in place, one has neglected a positive commandment and has violated ‘Do not bring blood upon your house.’”

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