Ki Tetzei: whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behaviour to others

The sidra of Ki Tetzei contains, according to Maimonides, 72 of the fabled 613 commandments in the Torah – on first reading the effect is of an enormous list of apparently haphazard rules ranging from family relationships to the treatment of a judicially executed corpse. From care for animals to cultic prostitution; from financial probity to cloth made from a mixture of wool and linen.

Throughout history Jewish scholars have tried to explain the unified theory of mitzvot; rather like with the laws of physics there is the sense that somehow there is an elegant rationale that, once found, will enlighten us about the world and its meaning. The best try (in my view) is that of Rabbi Pinchas b Hama who wrote (Devarim Rabbah 6:3) that “Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof. When you make a door write the commandments on the doorposts; when you put on new garments consider from what they are made; when you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, leave it for the widow, orphaned and the stranger, the vulnerable in your society”

In other words, every aspect of our daily life can be made holy through following these mitzvot – the mundane can be raised to the exceptional, the quality of our lives infinitely changed in these tiny regular incremental actions.

Many years ago studying with Rabbi Hugo Gryn zl I learned about the Shema, the prayer recited morning and evening of each day, for many people the defining prayer of Judaism. It speaks in the first line of the unity of God, and of the relationship of God and Jews. But before it does it demands something else of us – Shema – listen! Pay attention! Hear what is really important!

The first command in the prayer is to love God completely – with heart, spirit and physical strength. Then we are told that God’s commandments should be with us always, spoken of repeatedly to our children, talked about when we sit in our home, when we are walking outside, when we lie down, when we get up. They are to be written upon our doorposts so that going in and out of our homes we see and are reminded of the requirements of God. And in the Shema too we are told “ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, v’hayu l’totafot beyn eynecha” you shall hold fast to them as a sign upon your hands and they will be (reminders) before your eyes. The line has been understood to be the source of the practise of placing tefillin – small leather boxes containing some prayers – on the head and hand during the weekday morning prayer as an aid to remembering, but Rabbi Gryn had a different view – he understood it to say “in everything your hand touches and everything your eye sees you must respond to the requirements of God.”

If we really fulfil the commandment of ‘Shema’, then no part of our life is exempt from the dictates of holiness. We cannot be pious in the synagogue but not at home or at work. We cannot care about the humanity of the people we like but not that of those we dislike or disagree with. We cannot do the technical bare minimum to fulfil our obligations to society and consider our job well done. As another part of this sidra says – lo tuchal le’hitalem– You are not able to/ must not remain indifferent.

In this sidra too is the commandment to wear tzitzit – the knotted threads on the edges of some garments, most usually seen today on the tallit, which are the physical reminders that we have regular and routine obligations as Jews. Our obligation to love God is played out in our world – how we relate to others, how we care for the vulnerable, how we manage risk, how we nurture good values. The traditional unified theory of mitzvot is based on an unquestioned acceptance of the Metzaveh – the One who commands – that is God. In today’s world that understanding does not work so well – there are many who find such faith impossible or even undesirable. And yet the value of the system of mitzvot remains powerful – Judaism has never asked what you believe, but demands that you behave according to its belief. Lack of faith in God is no excuse for lack of proper behaviour towards others.

Ki Tetzei – the battle against ourselves

Parashat Ki Tetzei contains 74 commandments, more mitzvot than in any other sidra in Torah.  Reading through the list, one first notices just how random and unrelated they appear to be, but on closer reading one sees patterns and trajectories, and notices how much daily living they give guidance about, drumming into us the values and the moral code of the Jewish peoples.

 The list of mitzvot covers a wide variety of topics, from the behaviour of soldiers in wartime, through to the complexities of family life; They expect good behaviour in our relationships with others, respect for property and animals, the safety of others; Abuses of power in sexual relationships are covered, also power over escaped slaves, proper behaviour if giving  loans or charging interest, timely payment of workers, the importance of keeping promises, and the passage concludes with the importance of remembering to blot out the name of one of Israel’s greatest enemies – Amalek.

This extraordinary sidra, packed with injunctions as to how to behave, begins with the words:  “Ki Tetzei lemilchama al oyvecha  – when (or if) you go out to war against your enemies..”  While it is certainly a command to the whole nation of Israel, the fact that the verb used is in the singular, allows commentators to frame the reading differently, and, taking note of the fact that this sidra is always read early in the month of Elul, suggest that the verse is referring to the continuous battle each of us as individuals engages in, fighting our own yetzer ha’ra – evil inclinations. Thus the verse becomes one of comfort almost – God will help us to take control of our own bad habits and selfish desires.

 How would we do that? Well that is where the rest of the list of mitzvot comes in.

 For example, the sidra begins with a soldier taking captive a beautiful woman, allowing her to mourn her past life and then potentially taking her as a wife. But soon it moves onto the problems between two wives of the same man, and the difficulties of fairness in a polygamous marriage, and very shortly after that the sidra discusses the problem of what to do with the stubborn and rebellious child.  Are these mitzvot really so random as they first appear?  Are they really only arranged in a sort of “family relationships” category?  Or are they connected at a deeper or sequential level? Is Torah using this arrangement of verses to create an understanding in us that everything we do can impact on what already is in our worlds, and on what may yet become of our lives? 

 So how do we engage in fighting our most selfish desires? A plain reading of the text would be that we do so simply by fulfilling the mitzvot as enumerated here, but something else is being transmitted as well – By understanding what the fulfilment of our immediate selfish inclinations may bring about in our own contexts we may learn to temper them and find some better control of the self. So not just behaviour is being demanded of us without our thought or engagement, but the reasoning for WHY such behaviour is necessary is being required of us too.

 Understanding why we do a particular behaviour has never been the key factor to cause us to change it – that is one of the limitations of many a modern therapy. We may know that smoking kills, but that will usually not change the behaviour of the smoker. And yet, behaving without understanding, just following the rules – can lead to us becoming automatons, doing whatever we are told to do by whoever we give such authority over us–  magazine writers, fashion leaders, work bosses, company rules,  even rabbis. 

 We may choose to follow rules and expectations or not, but each of us is responsible for the choices we make. And to begin to see our actions in a context that can seriously impact upon others is no bad thing as we follow our own inclinations in our lives.

 Add to that the second half of the verse – that God helps us to prevail over our enemy/inclinations and a lesson comes into sharp focus. We may think that what we do is only our own business, but we exist in a context and a setting that includes others and that includes the seeds of our own future selves. The choices we make have power and can bring about a great deal of difference for us and for those around us. We make them best when we consider that we are not alone either in the choices or in their results.