Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Ki Tetzei – We’ve got Mitzvahs

Posted by rabbiart on August 25, 2009

This parshah has a special significance to me because it is the Bat Mitzvah portion of our older daughter. You try helping a 12 year girl embrace a parshah that begins with describing the treatment of women captured in war. And you thought bridge requires many a finesse! Hah!  If that weren’t enough, the parshah has the most mitzvot of any parshah in the Torah. There are 27 positively phrased and 47 negatively phrased mitzvot.  (No mitzvah should ever be described as “negative”) According to Sefer HaHinuch, these are the first 25 mitzvot in Ki Tetze. Even this subset of the Ki Tetzei mitzbot shows us how the Torah encompasses every aspect of life.

532 the law of a beautiful woman –  אֵשֶׁת, יְפַת-תֹּאַר –  captured in war

533 not to sell a beautiful woman captured in war

534 not to make a beautiful woman captured in war work after a slave after conjugal intimacy

535 the law of hanging someone after his execution

536 not to leave someone hung overnight on the gallows

537 to bury someone executed by court order

538 to return a lost object to its owner

539 not to ignore a lost object

540 not to leave someone else’s beast lying under its burden

541 to lift up a load for an Israelite

542 a woman should not wear men’s clothing

543 a man should not wear women’s clothing

544 not to take the mother-bird with the young in the nest

545 to send the mother-bird away from the nest

546 the duty to build a parapet

547 not to leave a stumbling-block around

548 not to sow mixed kinds of seeds in a vineyard in Israel

549 not to eat the produce of mixed seeds in a vineyard in Israel

550 not to do work with two kinds of animals together

551 not to wear cloth of wool and linen

552 that a man should marry (a woman)

553 that a wife who is motzi shem ra should stay with her husband forever

554 that a man who is motzi shem ra is never to divorce his wife

555 the duty of a court to enforce a proper sentence of stoning

556 not to punish anyone compelled to commit a transgression.

Of course there are some mitzvot in just this list alone that we might feel called upon to reinterpret. But no worries there, because reinterpreting the mitzvot to fit in with the just and proper needs of our time is a tradition that dates back at least to  the great sage Rabbi Hillel.

Each of these mitzvot cry out for further study and serious contemplation, either to understand why they are given and what they mean, or to ponder how we might go about designing a society in which they can be carried.  And how we might motivate ourselves to observe them.

To borrow from The Sound of Music, let’s start at the beginning, its a very good place to start.  We don’t need a Jewish Israeli on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition to understand the lure – to men – of a beautiful woman.  (By the way, does this mean that the Jewish people have finally become “normal”?)  Unfortunately, the bad conduct of soldiers seems to be as endemic as war itself.

Passing over the distressing subject of capital execution – but remembering the statement that a court which executed one person in 70 years has blood on its hands – we arrive we arrive at the subject of  basic human courtesy; the duty to help other’s keep their possessions.  We press onward through the list and find ourselves commanded with not one but two mitzvot to be kind to birds. While that subject is in the air  we learn that it is our duty to keep people from falling off our roof.

After mixing in some prohibited mixtures we find ourselves  with one easy (or… maybe not) and two mysterious mitzvot having to do with marriage.

The Torah – and rabbinic judaism – did not find itself compelled as we are in our day to wrestle with the issue of two people wanting to construct a loving, life-long relationship, who happen through the mystery of HaShem’s creative powers to be of the same sex.  Our mitzvah here (#552 in the list) is not concerned with either permitting or prohibiting same-sex union; it lives in a world where man-woman marriage is taken for granted.  This mitzvah details the three ways in which a marriage may be effected; by money, by a document, or by magic of loving union that ought to take place in the privacy of two people (Hollywood sex videos on Youtube notwithstanding).  The Jewish wedding today – marriage by ceremony – is nowhere mentioned in the Torah, nor is it described in this mitzvah, although we see marriage by document as part of the “modern” Jewish wedding.  It was a great simchah and honor to watch over the Ketubah signing at our younger daughter’s wedding, much less than to actually stand under the Chuppah and assist the bride and groom to marry each other.

Mitzvot 553 and 554 seem at first reading to make no sense whatsoever.  At the heart of these mitzvot is a great question that is with us to this day. How do we discourage individuals from bad or unacceptable actions that cause harm, without causing harm by the methods we employ to prevent the bad action?

These two mitzvot apply to the specific case of a husband publicly accusing his wife of not being a virgin on the day of the wedding, and claiming that she became “not a virgin” after the couple were betrothed to each other. We could take refuge in the easy way out by mentioning that Jewish weddings now combine betrothal and marriage into a single ceremony. As long as bride and groom stay under the chuppah, it is exceedingly unlikely that the bride will change from virgin to non-virgin after the couple has been officially betrothed.  Provided, of course, that the officiating clergy are not too long winded to the point of distraction and inattention 🙂 .

The specific interpretation of how husband and wife are too live forever in enmity, as well as how we might do anything other than chuck these two mitzvot overboard entirely leave me with no choice but to take refuge in “that’s beyond the scope of this particular post”.  Better yet would be to simply say that – in my time as a Rabbi – no husband and wife have ever come to me with a dispute on this issue; it should always remain so.

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