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Parashat Ki Tetze

August 18, 2010

By Rabbi Leonard Levin

A famous midrash tells how Moses argued with the angels that the Torah, though a creature of heaven, was destined for use on earth.  œDo you have urges to murder, to commit adultery, to steal? We earthly creatures, who are imperfect, need laws to tame our urges and work for self-improvement. You are already perfect! It is we who need the Torah  (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88b-89a).

Ahad Ha-Am, similarly in his essay  œPriest and Prophet,  contrasted two currents in Biblical thought. The prophet had a counsel of perfection, and dreamed of a society where justice would flow like a mighty stream and the lion would lie down with the lamb. The priest proposed a practical compromise, incorporating as much of the ideal as his contemporaries could digest, moving society forward one step at a time.

The laws of Deuteronomy, reflecting Israelite society in the late monarchical period, express a spirit of urbanity and compromise. In some respects they represented a considerable advance on widespread ancient practices. In some cases, they would themselves be superseded by rabbinic exegesis.

A midrash links the first four laws in our portion (See Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 107a and Seder Eliyahu Zuta 3:3). The rabbis saw these laws as presaging the tragedy in the family of King David. The seeds of tragedy were laid when David gave in to his passion for his neighbor s wife Bathsheba (the ishah yefat to ar, woman of striking beauty). This generated a harem environment, in which rivalry among the wives was mirrored in rivalry among their offspring, where giving preference to the younger would cause jealousy on the part of the older. This in turn led to one of the sons (Absalom) becoming rebellious and totally out of control. That episode ended tragically when Absalom was killed, hanging from a tree by his prized hair ”an event that the rabbis found suggested by the fourth law (a hanged criminal must be buried the same day).

The law of the ishah yefat to ar mandates that when a warrior captures an enemy woman whom he desires, he shall let her sit in seclusion thirty days, then either take her to wife or release her. This is an advance on the prevailing ancient practice of raping captives at the will of the victor, yet it falls far short of the standard of fully free consent from the woman s side that we find in rabbinic law. Whoever remembers the Broadway musical Miss Saigon will agree that the complex moral issues raised by this case still find relevance today.

An analogous compromise of boundaries can be found in the law of the bird s nest:  œsend the mother away, but take the eggs.  By the Biblical period, people had already domesticated animals for millennia, and even the wild animals were subject to hunting. This law (like the ban on cutting fruit trees ”but not non-fruit-bearing trees ”during war in 20:19 “20) falls short of an Edenic pastoral state that would leave nature fully intact. But it is equally far from the modern attitude that considers all the earth s resources fair game for people s technological exploitation.

A civilized society has its virtues and its vices that are different from those of a state of nature. We must live within just limits. Just as people may use nature s bounty judiciously within those limits, so they must respect their neighbor s rights. Do not move a neighbor s boundary-markers (19:14). You may snack casually of your neighbor s standing produce, but do not fill your bag with it (23:25). The landowner should not harvest his crop to the last sheaf, but leave some for the poor (24:19 “21). Market weights should be exact and just (25:13 “15). Special consideration should be given to the poor and disadvantaged (24:6, 14 “18).

All this is a commentary on the  œjustice, justice  of last week s portion (16:20). There are different shades of justice. Some forms of justice are absolute (field-markers and weights). Others must be tempered with mercy (the rights of the poor and stranger). Some rabbis also interpreted the second  œjustice  as pesharah ”compromise.

In struggling with our society s current challenges, we can gain perspective and wisdom by seeing our problems reflected in the issues that the Deuteronomist legislator addresses. Like him, we must think hard about the right line to draw between the demands of our technology and the autonomy of nature, between the claims of the property-owner and the human rights of the poor. Even the area of gender equality in which we have made so many advances leaves unresolved issues. We are still working on the agenda laid down over 2500 years ago.


Rabbi Leonard Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at The Academy for Jewish Religion.