Ki Tetzei: Mastery and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This week we’re reading the
Torah portion Ki Tetzei, which has the distinction of having more
distinct commandments than any other portion, including commandments
pertaining to property, marriage, divorce, warfare, lost objects,
loans, charity- all sorts of topics.

Many of these commandments seem rather straightforward, but our friend
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch derives a big theological idea from what otherwise
appears to be good advice in animal husbandry:

“You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. . . . ”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:10)

Many commentators see this commandment as being a general rule not to
yoke two different kinds of animals together, and further see this as
an instance of refraining from causing “tza’ar balei chayim,” or “pain
to living creatures.” The assumption here is that the smaller animal-
the donkey in this case- would struggle to keep up with the bigger ox
if they were joined together in one yoke. Rashi says the rule extends
to any joining together of two different kinds of animals, even for
just leading them together on the same line as pack animals.

So far, so good- a specific rule pertaining to plowing with animals is
interpreted as a general principle not to use animals in such a way
that a smaller, weaker species will struggle to keep up with or be
pulled along by a bigger, stronger one. The ancient rabbis certainly
would not have prohibited plowing with animals or letting them pull a
load, but wanted to temper such practices with an ethical
consideration for the animal’s welfare and potential for suffering.

However, I told you that Hirsch derives an even bigger idea from this
verse- he says that observing ethical considerations in our treatment
of animals is a reminder that there is One who stands in relationship
to both the animals and to us, Whose law governs how we treat all of
the beings in creation. In other words- extending moral consideration
to the donkey and ox not only spares them unnecessary pain, but also
trains human beings in humility, constantly re-teaching us that we are
not the ultimate masters of Creation.

To put it even more starkly, evoking Hirsch’s language: this mitzvah
teaches us by analogy: just as the animal may have a “master” who has
purposes for it, so do we have a Master who has purposes for us, and
who (in my extended interpretation) desires us to be Godly in a
quality of compassion and mercy towards all of Creation.

A few weeks ago, scientists announced that the Yangtze River dolphin-
a rare mammal found only in China- was “functionally extinct,” meaning
that if any existed, they were too few to reproduce and revitalize the
species. I bring this up only to point out that ethical and
theological considerations of the fact that we share this planet with
other living creatures are hardly the relic of an agricultural past;
right now, today, our actions affect the well-being of whole species
of animals, all across the planet. If we believe that Torah wants us
to be attentive to the suffering of all beings, then animal welfare is
no longer the concern of activists on the fringe- it’s central to
developing the compassionate consciousness that is the core idea of
Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom,



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