Ki Tetzei: Basic Respect

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

Greetings from beautiful Lake Como, PA, where I’m attending the Quad-Region USY [United Synagogue Youth] Encampment at Camp Ramah Poconos !

This morning at Encampment services I offered a brief introduction to the weekly Torah reading, and what follows is an edited and  expanded version of the connection I made between the three mitzvot [commandments] in the verses we read. Try to pretend you’re in a camp social hall when reading it. . . .

The weekday morning Torah reading is D’varim/ Deuteronomy 21:10-21, and while there are many, many mitzvot in the Torah portion Ki Tetze, the weekday reading has three: a law regarding women captured in wartime, a law about inheritance rights in a difficult marriage, and the law of the “stubborn and rebellious son.”

The first law says that if a soldier in Biblical times took a woman captive in battle, he was not allowed to do whatever he wanted, but had to wait before taking her as a wife. The ancient rabbis assumed that if he had to wait, he’d probably change his mind and send her home, but even if he didn’t, he had to treat her like a human being and not like property. What this teaches is that even in wartime, when everything is chaos and most normal rules don’t apply, men still had to treat women with respect, like real human beings, not just objects- so how much more so does that apply in everyday life!

The second law says that if a man has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he doesn’t, he still has to give a fair inheritance to the sons of the wife he doesn’t like. That is, whatever problem there might be between the husband and wife, the parent can’t put that on the child, who gets the inheritance that’s due to him, even the bigger inheritance of the firstborn. What this teaches is that even if you really have a problem with somebody, your problem with one person doesn’t apply to anybody else- not that person’s friends, family or acquaintances. People are individuals, and deserve to be treated that way.

The final law of this morning’s reading is really hard: it’s the “stubborn and rebellious son.” The Torah says that if a young man is really horrible, a drunkard and a thief and a glutton and totally disrespectful, his parents can take him out to be stoned to death! Most of the rabbis say that actually never actually happened- what kind of parents would do that? So maybe this section of the Torah using an impossible example to teach that that some kinds of behaviors are so serious, they can make people so angry and feel so disrespected it might be a matter of life and death.

What these three mitzvot have in common is treating others with respect, even in difficult situations. We’re not soldiers at war, and I hope nobody hates somebody in their family, but the idea is this: if in those extreme situations, people had to be treated as individuals, with basic human dignity- it applies even more so in normal interactions with friends and family. To put it another way, sometimes the Torah gives an extreme example so we’ll see how it applies even more in normal situations, like how we treat each other today and every day, at camp. at school or at home.

Shabbat Shalom,

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