Monthly Archives: August 2015

Ki Tetsei

SummaryKi Tetsei is the 6th parasha in the Book of Debarim. It is a continuation of Moshe’s speech to B’nei Yisrael preparing them to enter the land of Cana’an. The on-going theme of Ki Tetsei focuses on personal behaviour – how to establish a cohesive, caring society and what actions to prohibit to avoid undermining this.

The opening verses address going out to war, forewarning the consequences of a soldier following his baser passions. The juxtaposition hints at a spiritual regression – taking a war-captive bride could bring strife into the home, causing a son to become rebellious. 

The second aliyah combines laws of burying immediately those condemned to capital punishment, returning a lost animal to its owner, helping a fallen animal right itself, the prohibition against cross-gender dressing and the obligation to shoo a mother bird from it’s nest before taking either the young or the eggs.

The third aliyah deals with putting a fence around one’s roof to prevent accidental falls, the laws of mixtures – ploughing with ox & mule or wearing clothing from wool & linen, and it includes attaching fringes to a 4-cornered garment.

The next paragraphs concern marriage-related conduct. There are warnings and punishments for a husband who libelled his new wife, for adultery between married spouses, for raping a woman in a city or in the country-side, for seducing a maiden and for incest with a step-mother. Also included are those to be excluded from ever joining the Jewish nation; a child born from an illicit relationship, the Moabite & the Ammonite. The latter for refusing to give bread and water in the desert and for hiring Balaam the prophet to curse the Israelites.

The fourth aliyah describes those who can join the nation; the Edomite and the Egyptian. It continues with commands to establish a latrine for keeping camp hygiene. There are laws against returning runaway slaves to their masters, against prostitution, against taking interest when loaning money or other items to a ‘brother’, and a law requiring the fulfilment of pledges and promises.

The fifth aliyah sets-out the amount the poor can glean from a field that belongs to someone else, as well as the laws of Jewish divorce.

The sixth aliyah exempts a newlywed husband from military draft, condemns one who kidnaps and sells another person into slavery, demands someone with tsara’at(skin ailment) go to the Kohen for diagnosis, and limits intrusion by the lender when taking pledges from the poor.

The last aliyah in Ki Tetsei requires paying (poor) labourers their daily wage, not punishing children for the deeds of their fathers and vice-versa, not perverting justice due to strangers, orphans and widows, and when harvesting being mindful to not go back but to leave in the field forgotten grain and vine produce for them to gather.

When a person is judged guilty of a crime and the sentence is lashes, they mustn’t exceed 40 strokes. This is followed by laws of levirate marriage and its refusal (known as halitsah – taking off the shoe), the law of intruding to stop men fighting, and the law of maintaining accurate weights & measures.

The final maftir portion of Ki Tetsei contains the command to ‘Remember Amalek‘, a nation that maliciously attacked the Israelites just after they left Egypt. The Torah demands their memory be erased from under the Heavens’ (Debarim 25:17-19 – this portion is also read on Shabbat Zakhor.)

Comment: Much of Ki Tetsei appears theoretical. Some laws, according to the Talmud, were never applied (I.e. putting to death a rebellious son). Others seem rooted in history but irrelevant today (I.e. returning runaway slaves). How do we relate to what appears as an ancient, authentic but anachronistic Torah?

Sages and rabbis from the earliest post-Temple periods struggled with this question. One approach was to interpret the verses non-literally or metaphorically, deriving lessons relevant for the time period of the exegete. For example, the opening verse, ‘When you go out to war with your enemy, and G-d gives you victory, and you carry away a captive’ (Debarim 21:10), today can imply any struggle with physical desire, not just the actual dangers of war.

We often see this when young people leave home for university. They’re attracted to peers from different backgrounds and make new discoveries – calling into question whether cultural boundaries and religious restrictions learned at home (or at Jewish schools) are appropriate for them. When we remember that the desire for intimacy is the greatest force in human life, it shouldn’t surprise us that most marriages come from relationships formed at university.

If we’re honest with ourselves and live according to the values we treasure, we can be authentic role models for our children. It does no good to tell a child to follow what we say even though we act differently. This is true of how we conduct ourselves ethically and of our relationships. While we encourage our children to choose their own values, when we’re inconsistent or self-contradictory, they’re left to navigate their own course.

Following the earlier period of mourning known as the 3-weeks, we’re now embarked on a course of 7 weeks following Tisha B’Av until Rosh Hashanawhen special haftarot of consolation are read. Thus far, we’ve read Isaiah’sNahamu, Nahamu (Be consoled my people!), VaTomer Tsion (And say to Zion),Oniyah Se’orah (The Afflicted), and Anohi Anohi Hu Menakhemhem (I, yea I, will be your Consoler).

This week’s haftarah is Roni Akarah (Sing, O Barren One). It is also the haftarahread for Parshat Noah. Each of these special prophetic readings, recorded 2,500 years ago, offers an uplifting message of future redemption to an exiled and oppressed Israelite nation.


SummaryShoftim is the 5th parasha in the Book of Debarim. It concentrates on the rules for establishing communal life and continues Moshe’s final speeches to theBnei Yisrael as they prepared to enter Cana’an.

Shoftim begins with the command to appoint a system of justice – judges & law-enforcement officers – charged to protect the public interest and not be corrupted by personal gain. Bnei Yisrael were then reminded not to worship idolatry or offer blemished animals in their Divine worship. For those who took cases to the place where Kohanim, Levi’im and judges resided, there was an obligation to heed the words of the authorities and not act in contempt of court.

Shoftim continues with rules applying to appointing a Jewish king in the land ofCana’an. He mustn’t be consumed by passions to amass horses, wives or wealth, so his heart won’t be diverted from focusing on G-d. Instead he was to study the Law and serve as a moral example to the nation.

The third and fourth aliyot in Shoftim concern the role of Kohen & Levi – not to receive any land inheritance, but instead to be given gifts from the agriculture and flocks of the landed tribes. The tribes were also proscribed from using any substitute spiritual intermediaries for worship.

Next Moshe described the prophetic chain – that G-d would appoint a successor to lead the people. The people needed a procedure for discerning true from false prophecy.

The fifth aliyah lists the command to set up 3 cities of refuge – places providing safe haven to the accidental murder and protection from any bereaved family member seeking revenge. To ensure the cities’ integrity, the intentional murderer was denied refuge and instead handed over to their avengers.

The sixth aliyah addresses the judicial process for accepting witnessed testimony, A minimum of 2 valid witnesses were required to ascertain judgment. If witnesses perjured themselves, their punishment would be the same as what they intended to falsify. Shoftim continues with military exemptions for those who built a new house, planted a new vineyard, became engaged to be married or were simply too frightened to go out to war.

The parasha concludes with ancient rules of engagement in war. The nation had to seek a treaty of peace with their enemy. If the treaty was refused, the town would fall under siege, and once breached all warring-men would be killed, while women and children along with assets would be taken as spoils of war.

But there were several nations to be eradicated entirely from Cana’an. Toward those 7 idolatrous nations, no mercy was to be shown – not to men, women or children [N.B. words too harsh for our moral sensitivities today].

Finally, Shoftim ends with the Eglah Arufah, the ritual for a corpse found outside the city limits. The nearby city elders would gather and break the neck of a young calf, then all would profess innocence to the cause of death. (These same words are used today when leaving a Jewish cemetery ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood nor have our eyes seen’ (Debarim 21:7).

We were upset to read this week of the terrorist bombing in the Thai Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 innocent people. We pray for the recovery of the injured and wish comfort to the families of those who died.

In the week where Parashat Shoftim compassionately provides ‘cities of refuge’ for the inadvertent murderer and the Eglah Arufah ritual of innocence. It frightens us to see CCTV images of a human being consciously – without empathy or guilt – depositing a bomb in a public space and walking away to his own safety. An act of premeditated hatred and cruelty, it’s roots date back to the first fratricide (Cain killing Abel), reminding us why the Divine principles of respecting life and living in peace are still so important today.


SummaryRe’eh is the 4th parasha in the Book of Debarim. It continues Moshe’s final speeches to the Bnei Yisrael as they prepared to enter Cana’anRe’eh is a more specific discourse to the Israelite’s on how to successfully take over and settle a land occupied by idolatrous tribes, and going forward, make it fit for Divine worship.

Re’eh begins with the possibility of a blessing and a curse. The blessing for listening to G-d’s commands and the curse for not doing so. The opening paragraphs demanded iconoclasm, breaking down and destroying any previous places of worship used by the disinherited nations.

Instead, the Israelites were to set up a solitary new place of worship which G-d would show them, to bring their obligatory and voluntary offerings. There the people would bring of their flocks, grain and vine harvests, and there they would rejoice in G-d’s presence, remembering always to include the Levites in their celebrations.

In Re’eh Moshe granted permission for the people to eat meat of domesticated animals slaughtered in their local areas as long as they avoided consuming its blood. Only sanctified offerings were to be brought to the place chosen for communal worship ‘for your own good and that of your children afterwards, by doing what is correct in G-d’s eyes’ (Debarim 12:25).

After occupying the land, Moshe warned the nation against enquiring into the idolatrous practices of the previous occupants, nor to add-to or take-away from any of G-d’s teachings.

Even if they showed wondrous signs, the Israelites were warned not to follow false prophets if their message was to serve idolatries. The same for family members who might try to lead them astray – both should be executed to stem the possible spread of evil within the nation. Furthermore, a Jewish town that embraced idolatries was to be razed to the ground and never rebuilt, its occupants and their possessions destroyed by sword or fire.

Re’eh proscribes behaviours worthy of G-d’s ‘sanctified nation’ – including the list of animals, fish, birds and insects permissible as human food. It then describes communal responsibilities such as Tithing, letting the land rest during Shemitah,lending to the poor and treating the indentured-servant with dignity and benevolence.

The final section of the parasha lists the 3 annual pilgrimage festivals – Pesah, Shavuoth and Sukkoth – when residents celebrated in that place chosen for communal worship. (This is one of the portions typically read in synagogue on Festivals.)

Underlying Re’eh’s opening verse of being given ‘a blessing or a curse,’ must be the premise that there’s an ability to choose freely in either direction – the concept of Free Will. To the extent we make important choices we can be rewarded (or punished) for our actions. But to what extent are the most important aspects of our lives really within our control?

For example, there are more than 7 billion people living in the world. Only a very small handful enjoy a standard of living that is defined as ‘earning more than $5 per day’. As many as 4 billion of the world’s population are at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, living in conditions we’d find ‘intolerable’.

That we were born in a wealthy part of the world and not the poorer regions was not our conscious choice. It may have been our predecessors wish! But if so how can we fault others fleeing places of conflict and turmoil wanting to do the same today?

We neither chose who our parents will be nor in what country we’ll be born. The extent of our choosing is limited to a rather narrow spectrum of decisions most occurring once we’re of majority age – I.e. what school to attend, what career path to follow, whom to marry, where to buy a home and whether or not to become parents ourselves.

Are these the only real choices we make or are there more? How wide of a world view are we willing to embrace? Where does G-dliness fit into these ‘formulaic lives’ we’ve chosen? What makes any of us worthy of being part of G-d’s sanctified nation?

Moshe’s summing-up in these early parashot in Debarim, reflects the Torah’s relevance even today. It helps us remember that our ancestral roots were nourished during centuries of slavery and as nomads thereafter until Bnei Yisrael finally became a nation settled into its own land.

These messages from our specific ancient past, link us to the present, demanding ‘for our own good’ that the choices we really make include compassion, inclusion, respect and tolerance for others.


SummaryEikeb is the 3rd parasha in the Book of Debarim. It continues the first of Moshe’s final speeches to the Bnei Yisrael as they prepared to enter Cana’anEikebis preoccupied with warning the Israelites against the immigrant’s cycle of insecurity, complacency, arrogance and idolatry/ assimilation when settling into their new land.

Moshe constructed a polarity for the people by telling them of their reward for following G-d’s ways and by threatening punishment for disobedience and neglect.They’re told inheriting Cana’an is not a natural entitlement but that it will be given to them because the current inhabitants were corrupted and unworthy.

He reminded them of their father’s sin with the Golden Calf and other rebellions, charging this generation to remain steadfast in fulfilling G-d’s commands and worshipping G-d with all their hearts and souls. Intertwined with his exhortations, Moshe reminded the people G-d redeemed them from slavery but that they often failed to be appreciative (Datan & Aviram, swallowed by the earth for rebelling, were an example).

In the last section of Eikeb, which contains the second paragraph of Shema, Moshe described the difference between the land of Egypt and the land of Cana’an. The nation was told ‘Cana’an is a land the Almighty looks after constantly, G-d’s eyes are on it from the beginning of the year until the end.’ (Debarim 11:12) The parasha ends with a promise G-d would ensure ‘their success in the land.’

Comment: Following the horrible incidents in Israel last week, there’s no better way to lose the ‘moral high-ground’ than to act and become as barbaric as one’s enemies. Any nation or people who claim to be moral must live by a standard demonstrating a higher morality. When they stop living-up to that standard they lose the claim of ‘being righteous’ and instead become like other nations or people who live according to a lower moral way.

While the actions of a few Jewish ‘terrorists’ have been widely denounced, perhaps this is an opportunity to revisit the institutional policies and structures which may encourage such extremist behaviour. And, just as an entire nation of Israelis shouldn’t be tarnished by the image of a few vigilantes, we might ask ourselves how much we too, fairly or otherwise, allow images from the media to colour and shape our view of ‘others’.

For a lovely explanation of the traditional belief why both the broken and whole tablets were preserved in the Aron Kodesh, please see this parasha comment from Rabbi Marc Angel of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.