Archive for Ki Tetzei

Ki Tetze: Conquering One’s Eyes

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Good Afternoon!

Lots of interesting laws in this week’s Torah portion, including famous laws to return lost property to its rightful owner. These laws begin in Chapter 22 with an injunction against ignoring animals that have gone astray:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. . .  (D’varim 22:1)

The Hebrew is interesting, with a sort of double negative: “you will not see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and turn away from them.” Our friend Rashi says that “you will not see” means “covering your eyes, as if you did not see.” The difficulty he addresses is only implicit: if one really didn’t see, there would be no obligation, (we can’t act on what we don’t know about) so “not seeing” must mean one didsee, but chose to act as if one didn’t.

What makes Rashi’s comment even more interesting is the word he uses for “cover,” as in cover one’s eyes. He uses the word kovesh, a root which can mean cover or pave or but also means conquer or achieve victory over. Now, maybe I’m leaning too hard on one word,  but perhaps Rashi is suggesting that it takes some effort not to see what we don’t want to see. In the case of the lost animal or other possession, perhaps we don’t want to go to the effort to identify the rightful owner, or perhaps we choose not to see identifying marks that would obligate us not to keep what we  have found; the mind powerfully justifies what we want to do anyway!

The effort not to see what one doesn’t want to see is often not conscious, but indeed all of us choose to deny certain truths that on some level we know. These truths might be related to health, money, relationships, issues of social justice, poverty or suffering around us, but they are there, and we so often conquer our eyes and act as if we don’t see. Our world is warming and the seas are rising, but we conquer our eyes and turn away from the evidence here and abroad. Right here in America, there are serious issues of racism, inequality, unemployment, hunger and strife, but all too often, we conquer our eyes until images too powerful to ignore erupt on our screens and across the headlines.

The mitzvah of returning lost objects is not only about establishing trust among neighbors (see commentary linked in first paragraph) but also about training our hearts and minds to see things that we’d rather ignore. That, in turn, becomes an indispensable aspect of a mature and engaged life; we cannot fix what we choose not to see, and so healing the world depends on opening our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,



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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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Ki Tetzei: The Impermanence of Sorrow

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This week’s haftarah is both beautiful and disturbing: beautiful,
because the poetry is evocative and hopeful, and disturbing, because
the metaphors can be jarring and hard to fit with a contemporary

To wit, the dominant theme of this week’s haftarah, from Isaiah 54, is
a comparison of the people Israel, soon to be redeemed from exile, to
a woman who is “shamed” but soon to joyful. This “shame” (e.g., loss
of status) is either inability to bear children, widowhood or
abandonment; the image of Israel as a bereaved woman stays constant
throughout the text but the source of the sorrow shifts as the passage

It’s a difficult image to digest, but what makes it harder is the
extension of the metaphor to include God’s role in the exile; that is,
if Israel is the abandoned wife, and redemption from exile is like the
reconciliation between spouses, then God, as it were, is like the
husband who rebukes or spurns his wife but then takes her back. This,
in turn, raises all kinds of questions about theodicy, or God’s
justice: how can we be grateful to God for bringing the people back
from exile if He [following the metaphor from the haftarah] was the
one who put us there in the first place?

Lest you think I’m reading too much into the poetry, consider these verses:

“For a little while I forsook you,
But with vast love I will bring you back.
In slight anger, for a moment,
I hid My face from you;
But with kindness everlasting
I will take you back in love” (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 54:7-8)

OK, what do we do with this? I am unwilling to articulate a theology
in which suffering is due to sin, either for persons or communities;
doing so not only posits that inflicting suffering is a choice God
makes, but relieves (in this case) the Babylonian empire from moral
responsibility for how it treated other, weaker nations. However, if I
can’t read the haftarah as an explanation of history, I can still
understand it as a poetic rendering of the experience of exile. That
is, rather than being prescriptive (don’t sin or God will banish you
from home), we can read it as descriptive: exile (or other suffering)
is so terrible it feels like even God has abandoned us.

This makes sense to me, and brings the images in the haftarah closer
to our experience: who among us has not experienced frustration,
anger, and even a sense of profound spiritual loneliness during
moments of grief or pain? Even the faithful have moments of doubt and
darkness- it is a natural part of the spiritual journey, rendered here
in images of bereavement and loss, soon to be transformed. The promise
of Isaiah is that these feelings don’t have to be permanent; there is
healing from sorrow, and thus hope endures where love is remembered.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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Ki Tetze: Of Cloaks and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Dear Friends:

It’s a lovely day in the Hudson River Valley, and perhaps it’s
appropriate for Labor Day Weekend that our Torah portion, Ki Tetze,
includes laws pertaining to the relationship between rich and poor. In
Chapter 24 of the book of Dvarim, we find a link between the
historical experience of slavery in Egypt and the moral imperative of
defending those who are weakest and most marginal in society:

“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless;
you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were
a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there;
therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” (Dvarim/
Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

Rashi sees the first part of verse 17 as linked to an earlier warning
not to “pervert justice” in the case of a poor person: i.e., somone
who oppresses a widow or orphan would then be in violation of two
commandments, which lends extra weight to the idea that it’s precisely
the powerless who must be on the moral “radar screen” of the
community. (Cf. Dvarim 16:19) Rashi goes on to say two amazing things,
which I want to explain in reverse order.

First, Rashi interprets “remember that you were a slave in Egypt” as
meaning that the only reason we were redeemed from Egypt was to obey
the commandments of the Torah- even if they cause monetary loss. He
brings up monetary loss because of the second half of verse 17- “you
shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.” Rashi (and other
commentaries) understand this to mean that one can’t take a widow’s
(presumably solitary) garment after she’s already defaulted on the
loan. Now it’s clear what he meant about “monetary loss:” even if you
lose the value of a poor person’s cloak, you cannot rob that person of
their only warmth just to satisfy a debt. You must let it go- it would
be unfair and cruel to let someone freeze just because they are too
poor to repay a loan .

So far, so good- the Torah teaches compassion even to the “repo man!”
However, I think there is another message built into the guidelines
for charitable economic dealings. To wit, the Torah could easily have
taught us not to take the poor person’s last possessions as a law by
itself- what does the experience of slavery in Egypt have to do with it?

To me, the Torah’s message is this: remember what it felt like to be
treated as an object, a means by which someone else is enriched or has
their needs met, regardless of one’s own needs or feelings. Slavery,
of course, is the ultimate objectification of human beings, who are
made into mere possessions, objects of someone else’s will. Taking a
poor debtor’s cloak doesn’t seem the same as forcing an entire nation
into brutal labor, but both involve cutting off one’s empathy for the
other, and disregarding their essential humanity.

Perhaps those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born in
North America have never experienced the kind of slavery that our
ancestors did, but all of us, at one time or another, have felt the
profound frustration and powerless rage that comes with being treated
as a number, case file, nameless customer, disrespected employee, or
victim of someone’s greed. Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where
was more convenient to blame you for a problem than to have a hard
discussion about what’s really going on in the office, or perhaps
someone chose to take advantage of you in a business transaction or
emotional relationship.

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt”- that is, remember how bad
it felt to be treated as less than fully human, and don’t do that to
anybody else. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for flawed human beings
(which includes everybody reading and writing this paragraph) to be
perfectly empathetic at all times, so at this time of year, we reflect
on our deeds, both public and private, and attempt to do t’shuvah,
returning and repairing, when we have treated others as we would not
wish to be treated. All of us suffer the petty indignities of living
in a bureaucratic, hurried world, where people are capable of cruelty
and narcissism; the challenge is to stay in touch with the pain
without becoming callous or cynical. The Torah’s promise is that we
can transcend our experiences, and become people of genuine empathy,
compassion, and love- for this we were redeemed from Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- as usual, the first link leads to a summary of the Torah
portion, and further commentary, and the second link has the full text
of the Torah portion and haftarah.

P.P.S.- if you are at all interested in current events within the
Conservative movement, and some of the changes and controversies in
our midst, then these two links will make for very interesting
reading. The first is an article about the discussions regarding the
Movement’s stance on gay and lesbian inclusion (including ordination)
and the second is a reflection on a now-famous speech that the
outgoing Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary gave last
spring. Do read, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Ki Tetze: Lost Cell Phones, Restored Faith

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Shalom on this sodden September day!

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tezte, contains lots of different kinds of laws:
property laws,
laws of warfare and captivity, laws pertaining to the treatment of animals,
family laws and
employment regulations.

This week we’ll forego our friend Rashi’s commentary and begin with a true story
from the
recent adventures of your humble commentator. About a month ago, I left my cell
in a park in Marblehead, and within hours of discovering the loss, and driving
back to the
park to confirm it, I had already canceled service to the lost cell phone and
bought a new

Lo and behold, two days later I get a call from a Marblehead police officer, who
had my cell
phone at his house and invited me to come get it. His son had taken a group of
day camp
kids to the same park the day I was there, and one of the campers found the
phone and
gave it to his counselor, who then gave it to his father. I was astonished, and
when I
arrived at his house, I ask how he found me.

Well, it wasn’t simple, but it was a wonderful, practical example of laws from
this week’s
parsha. The police officer and his son opened up the phone book stored in the
phone and
just started calling the numbers, asking if anybody recognized the phone number
appeared on their “Caller ID.” After a few phone calls, they reached my uncle’s
sister Florence, in Los Angeles (!), who only knows one person on the North
Shore (me.)

This surprises me even more: they were willing to do all that to return the
phone? The
answer is touching and profound: the police officer admitted that he wanted to
show his
son that one must exert oneself to be a responsible neighbor, rather than taking
the easy
way out, even if it’s tempting to keep the new phone in your hands.

Nice story- it’ll make a great sermon someday- but what does all this have to do
Devarim/ Deuteronomy?

At the beginning of Chapter 22, we find the laws of lost objects:

“You shall not see your kinsman’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them.
[Rather,] you
shall return them to your kinsman. But if your kinsman is not near you, or if
you do not
know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until
your kinsman
seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his
donkey, and so
shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your
which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. ” (22:1-3)

Well, the Torah mentions donkeys, and not cell phones, but you get the idea. The
codify these laws even further, saying that one has a halachic (Jewish legal)
obligation to
seek the owner of lost objects which bear any sort of identifying marker, and
keep them
until the owner has had a reasonable chance to make a claim.

The key concept in the rabbinic treatment of the laws of lost objects is
“ye’ush,” or
“despair.” If I drop a dollar coin in the street, I assume it’s gone for good,
because it could
be anybody’s, but if I drop a purple polka-dotted scarf, I will not as quickly
“despair” of
finding it, because it’s a unique and special object which I can ask about. The
finder has to
give the owner time before claiming the object, and must assume that the owner
has not
“despaired” of finding it, if he or she indeed has some chance of getting it

Now you understand the story of my cell phone- I had already decided, within
hours, that I
would not get the phone back, so I replaced it. But the police officer went to
great trouble,
using the unique information stored in the phone, to try to return it to me- he
following Jewish law better than I was! I was cynical: I assumed that anybody
finding a cell
phone would make long-distance calls and keep the phone, so I wanted to limit
damages and charges. The police officer was not cynical: he wanted to be a good
neighbor, and at that moment, I didn’t really believe my neighbors would do such
a thing.

The cynicism about human nature which caused me to rush out and buy a new phone
is a
deeper problem of the human spirit than a lost object, and that’s why the Torah
that the finder has an obligation to the unlucky neighbor who lost something. A
community where people take advantage of another’s misfortune is a community
soon unravels. Conversely, a community where people feel their neighbor’s
“despair” is a
community that can thrive with the spirit of trust and interdependence.

If I feel my neighbor won’t look out for me, I probably won’t look out for him
either, and
compassion is lost to the world. If, instead, we seek to fulfills the Torah’s
ideal of making
each other whole, in property and in spirit, then what’s really returned is not
only the lost
object, but hope itself: hope in the goodness of humankind, hope in the
possibility of true

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find the text of this week’s Torah portion and haftarah
and various
commentaries here:

PPS: Two interesting articles on the laws of lost objects can be found here:

under the heading “Property Law.”

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Ki Tetzei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

This Parashat Ki Tetze is dedicated
in loving memory of Sadie Dragushan
(Sheindel bat Yosef u’Miriam) by Ron Dragushan
to mark the end of Shloshim.

Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10- 25:19)


Ki Tetze contains a very wide assortment of laws and instructions for the Jewish people, covering rules for ethical warfare, family life, the prompt burial of the deceased, property laws, the humane treatment of animals, fair labor practices, and proper economic transactions. The parasha ends with the famous command to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt; this paragraph is traditionally read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim.


“When you go to war against your enemies and the Adonai your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. ” (Deuteronomy 21:10-15)


As my teacher R. Eddie Feinstein wrote regarding this passage, all is not fair in love and war- the Torah recognizes the reality of war, but demands that even in the insanity of battle, a human being be recognized as a human being. That women were captured in war was non-controversial in the patriarchal cultures of the ancient world; the Torah, however, says that even this sexist cultural norm must be subject to some kind of moral regulation. Rape is condemned, and a ritual of bringing the woman into the soldier’s house slowly, and allowing her to mourn, is instituted in its place. Many commentators assume that the point of this ritual delay is so that the soldier will change his mind, and let her go.


The law of the woman captured at war is difficult for contemporary readers; it is an artifact from an ancient world, a world whose attitudes towards women, war, marriage, and family is far from our own. I can accept that this law represented an advance over the typical “rules of war” of its day, but it’s difficult to accept that the Torah gives permission for men to capture women and marry them forcibly.

Lucky for me, our good friend Rashi does something quite amazing with this entire passage, offering an interpretation which creatively illustrates my feeling that the Torah is saying something subtler than “capture women, but be more dignified about it.”

Rashi links this passage, concerning the captured woman, with the next two, in verses 15-20. These laws concern the “hated wife” (whose children must be treated fairly) and the “rebellious son” (who could be put to death – but don’t worry, the rabbis say this never actually happened.) Rashi says that taking a woman in war will lead to her becoming the “unloved wife,” and any children from this union will become “rebellious sons:”

    “you may take her as your wife”. . . The Torah speaks here only to oppose the Selfish Inclination [Yetzer Hara], because if the Blessed Holy One did not permit [jt], he would marry her against the law. But if he does marry her, she will in the end be “hated,” as the verse says, and eventually they will beget a “rebellious son.” That’s why all these sections are connected.

By linking these three strange laws, Rashi seems to be saying that we are to learn the consequences of acting on our shallowest urges. Yes, it’s theoretically permissible to marry the woman captured in war, according to the letter of the ancient law, but look where it gets you: you end up hating that which reflects back to you your own worst side, and you end up with family difficulties across the generations. One who sees in another human being only a way to gratify personal desires- even in a more restrained, “permitted” way- ends up without even the respect of others, not even of his or her own children.

Because the law of the “rebellious son” is usually assumed to be only theoretical, never applied, I think Rashi is saying the same thing about the “captured woman.” Maybe it’s only a parable for the destructive consequences of seeing others as means, rather than as holy ends in themselves. Maybe the emphasis on the woman’s beauty is a way of warning us against focussing on external appearances, rather than spiritual qualities- even in wartime! As the ancient rabbis like to say, if in war one should recognize the essential humanity of each person, and never use them or abuse them, how much more so in everyday life, when we have daily opportunities to affirm the best in ourselves and others.

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