Judging How We Judge: Parshat Ki Tetsei

Standard

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19, Isaiah 54:1-10
(An introduction to my divrei torah.)

It is now the Hebrew month of Elul, when we shift focus to beginning a new year and atoning. We read this week lists and lists of rules. Ki Tetsei contains some of the most sweeping calls for justice and fairness in the whole Torah:

…you shall not turn in a runaway slave to their master (Deut. 23:16)…
…you may not make a spectacle of capital punishment (21:22)…
…you must either return lost property to its owner, or hold it in trust until reclaimed, but “you may not remain indifferent” (21:1-3)…
…you shall maintain honest weights (which I think is saying something about one’s gym membership) (25:13)…
…you must leave gleanings for the poor in your harvest…
…you shall not abuse a needy or destitute laborer (24:14)…

But it also stipulates some of the most troubling and disconcerting of rules:

…you can capture wives as spoils of war, as long as you don’t sell them as slaves later (which really pushes the definition of slavery!) (21:10)…
…you may execute a rebellion son for eating a fist-sized peice of meat (21:10)…
…you may not genderbend (wear the other sex’s clothing) (22:5)…
…you must kill your daughters who are not virgins (22:13-29)…
…you may not enter combat as a soldier if you’ve had a wet dream (23:10)…
…you may charge Gentiles interest, but not Jews (23:20)…
…and whatever you do, don’t you ever, EVER forget what Amalek did to us (does anybody remember this? anybody?) (25:17)…

There are 79 commandments given in this section, dealing with judgments and rules and prohibitions and punishments. Thank heavens then that the haftarah is about forgiveness and being taken back by God:

For a while I forsook you
But with vast love I will bring you back

For the mountains may move
And the hills may shake
But My loyalty shall never move
Nor My friendship shake

Judgment and mercy are supposedly balanced in our tradition, and as we approach the High Holy Days we are thankful for the latter. In Ki Tetsei, Deuteronomy is about judgment, Isaiah about forgiveness. We have rules, yes. But we are given the rules, not us to the rules, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This is the time of reconsideration. It’s time not only to reconsider our actions, but also to put the Torah up for reconsideration. Our individuals Torahs. As liberal theologians, we know that our religion is whatever we make of it. Judaism is replete with enough laws and injunctions that we can make our religion say whatever we want it to say. And we can make our rules rule us.

Sefer HaAggadah, essentially the coda of Jewish law with the law removed to compile just the parables and storytelling, offered me two startling examples from this parsha:

Early on, the Temple priests used to hold a race up the ramp of the altar for the honor of performing the divine sacrifice. But one time a priest lost the race and with the sacrificial knife stabbed the winner dead, but without bloodying the blade. The priestly class exclaimed to the horror of bystanders, “Thanks to God, the blade is still clean!” The rules ruled, cruelly.

Another teaching regards the “wayward son” who can be stoned to death for disrespecting his parents. Rabbi Simeon spends paragraphs explaining this as simply a metaphor for gluttony, it’s not what it sounds like, nobody should ever stone their own son! But at the very end, Rabbi Jonathan adds a single sentence: “Yes, but I saw one once, and sat by his grave.”

We chose our stringencies and leniencies. Not only how I have performed up to my principles, but which principles I chose.

Have I celebrated the clean blade before a dead body on the steps of the Temple? Or have I dismissed glibly entire tractates of our tradition as dated superstition? Have I, as I personally fear, given myself undue mercy without putting my faith outside my comfort zone?

It’s time to judge how we judge ourselves. And others. Read this parsha, see the breadth of concerns our tradition could ask of us, consider what you have built. I pray you find a new balance, in a new context, for a new reconsideration. May your Elul begin meaningfully.

Shabbat shalom.