Parashat Ki Teitzei – 5782

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The Value Of Life
A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Teitzei
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)

This week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei, is filled with a wide variety of mitzvot. It contains, perhaps, the most laws of any other parashah in the Torah. I’d like to focus on two of them. The first is as follows:

“If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall return it to him. You shall do the same with his donkey; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses, and you find it; you must not remain indifferent (lit. hide yourself).” [Deut 22:1-3]

The Talmud [Sanhedrin 73a] interprets this verse to mean more than just ensuring that someone’s lost animals or objects are returned. If another person is in danger of losing himself, (that is, he is in danger of dying), one has an obligation to save him – “you must return it to him” meaning you must return his life to him.

This is but one of many precepts in the Torah that have led to the Jewish mandate to consider “pekuah nefesh”, the saving of a life, to be among the most important of the commandments, so important that it can even override Shabbat. Thus, a physician who is shomer shabbat (shabbat observant) would not hesitate to travel to see a patient in an emergency; nor should the patient hesitate to call the doctor in such a case.  When the Torah says, “You shall keep my laws and my precepts that when a person does them, he lives by them, I am God.” [Leviticus 18:5], the Talmud says “’He shall live by them’” but he shall not die by them.’ [Yoma 85b].

With this deep respect for the value of life in mind, let’s look at another law just a few verses later in the same parashah:

“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Send away the mother, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” [Deut 22: 6-7]

There has been much discussion among commentators about the reason for this law. At face value, it seems that we are concerned about the particular mother bird, who might suffer if she witnesses the taking of her young.

Maimonides wrote:

“It is prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day to prevent people from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother, for the suffering of animals under such circumstances is very great…and does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for your young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.”

But that is not the whole of it. Maimonides concludes this passage by saying,

“If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow man!” [Guide for the Perplexed 3:48]

And so, this law is not only for the benefit of the mother bird, but for our benefit as well. This law and other laws commanding kindness to animals is a kind of training in kindness and ethical behavior, a shaping of an attitude toward life. Nahmanides emphasizes this latter aspect:

“These precepts of not slaughtering the mother and young on the same day and sending away the mother are not inspired by feelings of consideration for their suffering but are decrees to lead us and teach us good character traits.”

And so, by being kind and not causing suffering to animals, we learn to be kind and to not cause suffering to people.

Each year I read the same parashah, and yet each year different verses pop out at me, begging for consideration.  I find it useful to try to understand why these particular verses have come to my attention at this time. In this year, images on the news have been filled with Russia’s war on the Ukraine, with all its fatalities, destruction, and displacement. In the United States, we have had more than 450 (!) mass shootings so far this year.[1] My soul longs for a world where respect for human life is the most important thing. Further, in this time when we are so fractured and distrustful of each other that we refuse to talk to those who disagree with us, when we no longer recognize our common humanity in the other, I long for kindness.

We are in the month of Elul, leading up to the New Year.  Please join me in my prayer that 5783 will bring a year more respectful of life, and more filled with human kindness. Amen.

[1] Defined as 4 or more people shot (wounded or killed, not included the shooter) per Gun Violence Archive.
Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings, including as an adjunct faculty member at AJR.