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.

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