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Torah Sparks

September 1, 2012 – 14 Elul 5772

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 23:8 – 24:13 (Etz Hayim p. 1123; Hertz p. 847)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim p. 1138, 1085; Hertz p. 857, 818)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

By tradition, Parashat Ki Tetzei, contains more mitzvot than any other parasha. Among the commandments and legal categories addressed are the following: the treatment of women taken captive in time of war; immutability of the birthright; draconian treatment of the “stubborn and rebellious son”; judicial hangings; 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 remove 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, 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. 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: “Not on My watch!”

“Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.” (Deuteronomy 23:15)

Study: Derash

“Anything unseemly: In deed or in speech.” (Ibn Ezra)

“Unseemly thing… i.e. anything that one would be ashamed of… The camp must be ‘holy,’ otherwise there is no place in it for God.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“The initial letters of the phrase ‘to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you’ (L’hatzilcha V’latet Oyvecha L’fanecha) form an anagram of Elul (alephlamed- vav-lamed -- the month preceding Rosh Hashanah). This suggests that during this month the Holy One is found among the People Israel… and the Gates of Repentance are open. Therefore, ‘let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.’” (Korban He-Ani)

“This verse is dealing with the concept of modesty and the holiness of one’s camp, thus praising the virtue of modesty above all other good qualities, to the point of asserting that the Holy One punishes neglect of this quality by ‘turning away from you’ – by departure of the Divine Presence – that is, by removing (God forbid!) His Providence from anyone who conducts himself with a lack of modesty. This is not said of other virtues, thus teaching us that this is the loftiest virtue of all: whoever has this quality has it all!” (Rabbi Israel Mayer Ha-Kohen Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim)

“Absolute bravery, which does not refuse battle even on unequal terms, trusting only to God or to destiny, is not natural in man; it is the result of moral culture.” (Ardant du Piq, French Army officer, 1821-1870)

Questions for Discussion

What unseemly dynamics could be understood as contaminating the Jewish communal (or family) “camp” today… creating an atmosphere less than conducive to the Divine Presence? How might such conditions be redressed or reversed?

Is it constructive or hypocritical to “clean up our act” – to beware the unseemly – specifically during the month of Elul, in preparation for the High Holy Days… or in other explicitly “religious” contexts?

Do you agree with the Chofetz Chaim’s lofty estimation of the virtue of modesty (tzeniyut)? What aspect of modesty do you think he intends? Modesty in dress? In speech? In self-perception? Are there other virtues and personal qualities you would give greater priority?

Du Piq’s insight relates closely to the original context of our verse. How else does our parashah (indeed, how else does Jewish law and tradition) instruct us to create a “moral culture?” How does our religious/moral/ethical system lead to trust in God? To bravery? To success in national defense?

In 21st century terms, what does it mean that “the Lord your God moves about in your camp”? How does this continue to inform the moral import of our verse?

Theme #2: “Oath of Offense”

“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” (Deuteronomy 23:22-23)

Study: Derash

“When you make a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger (some versions: ‘before God’) that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)

“Is it not written: ‘You incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing?’ It is further written: ‘It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.’ And it has been taught: ‘Better than both one who vows and pays and one who vows and does not pay is he who does not vow at all; this is the view of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Judah says: Better than both one who vows and does not pay and one who does not vow at all is he who vows and pays.’” (Talmud Chullin 2A)

"The mere utterance of one’s lips is equivalent to a vow." (Talmud Nedarim 7A)

“A politician puts himself up for election under the banner of a variety of promises. People vote him into office on the basis of those policies, those dreams. Once in office, he then betrays his election promises. He goes his own way. Let us examine this situation. The person who was elected was not the person himself, the individual on the TV screen. The person who was elected was the sum total of the policies, the vision, the strategies that he had stated in his campaign. If he fails to live up to his own statements then he is elected under false pretence. He betrays his very office. The person in this situation is there fraudulently. Likewise, when an individual utters an oath in a testing situation, they say to God: view me as a person who has already performed the following act. Let me win the war and I will bring a sacrifice, i.e. let me win the war as if I have ALREADY brought the sacrifice. And if I don't bring it, then I am in debt! I am living on borrowed time. I exist by virtue of a lie.” (Rabbi Alex Israel)

When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows.” (William Shakespeare)

Questions for Discussion

The practice of personal vows has all but disappeared from Jewish life. Is this because of the spiritual peril and moral gravity of vows, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Rabbi Meir seem to say… or because our stated intentions carry the force of vows anyway (as Nedarim seems to say)? Would renewed attention to vows serve a constructive purpose today… or is this custom best relegated to the past?

What among your personal commitments amount to sworn vows, whether or not they are ever spoken or articulated?

Why does Kohelet (which seems to provide an early, Biblical basis for the later, general, rabbinic disdain for vows) posit the loss of personal property as the consequence of neglected vows?

How does Rabbi Israel’s analogy of the politician elucidate the traditional view of vows? What position might he take on the debate recorded in Tractate Chullin?

Historic Note

Parashat Ki Tetzei, read on September 1, 2012, concludes with the commandment to “Remember what Amalek did to you” – the ruthless attacks of the archetypical anti- Semitic nation against the People Israel. On September 1, 1941, Jews living in Germany were first ordered to wear identifying yellow stars of David on their clothing. Ten years later, on September 1, 1951, in a free and sovereign State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established the Mossad, the Israel intelligence agency, to protect the Jewish State and its citizens from all enemies.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Deuteronomy 24:16 conveys the commandment to pay a hired laborer on the same day. In his preface to the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot ha-Katzar, Ben Zion Sobel writes: “One who is not an employer might think that he has no opportunity to fulfill this commandment and be rewarded for it. But… whenever one hires a painter to paint his house, or a handyman to build or repair something, or a plumber to fix a leak, he is required to pay the hired worker on time. Moreover, whenever one rides in a coach (or in our times, in a taxi), he has actually ‘hired’ the driver to transport him to his destination, and he is thus responsible for seeing to it that the driver’s wages are paid promptly. Before paying, he is to take a moment to say to himself, I am about to perform the commandment of my Creator, Who instructed us to pay a worker on time.”

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