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Parashat Ki Tetze 5776 — 09/17/2016

Parashat Ki Tetze 5776 — 09/17/2016

Deut. 21:10 – 25:18

There are a lot of mitzvot in parashat Ki Tetze – according to Rambam’s count there are 70 (there are 613 total, and 54 parshiyyot, so on average each parashah should have about 11!), and they seem to be a grab-bag of topics all jumbled together. The commentators try to make sense of this by deriving halachah from the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate statements, almost as if this parashah is a stream-of-consciousness novel, and teasing out the streams can give us insight into Gd’s Mind. R. Steinsaltz explains:

An examination of the various juxtaposition-based interpretations by our sages reveals that the laws derived by this kind of interpretation – particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy – are very basic laws. …

Another type of juxtaposition-based interpretation teaches us not only the reason behind the law, … but the actual law itself. For example, the fact that one is liable to receive the punishment of lashes for violating a negative command (that has no associated positive command) is inferred from the juxtaposition of the section on lashes to the section of “Do not muzzle an ox when it is treading grain.”

R. Steinsaltz goes on to analyze the different categories of mitzvot:

Parashat Ki Tetzeh deals with both major categories of mitzvot: those between man and Gd and those between man and his fellow man. From here, as well as from other places in the Torah, it appears that our most common method of categorizing mitzvot into groups is not a division that the Torah seems to follow. …

The fact that the diverse categories of mitzvot are mixed together in the Torah, and that we are unable to explain the sequence of the subjects, teaches us an essential lesson. If we are to receive the Torah, the only way is to accept it as it is. We can receive the Torah only if we accept it with all its various components, because the Torah itself does not differentiate between them or see any difference between them.

And he concludes:

Our attempt to understand everything and create a unified and complete picture is an attempt to take Gd, or at least the Torah, and make it a simplistic plaything, and that is precisely what the Torah forbids. … one must always understand that the Torah is merely a bridge to Gd … and it is on this bridge that Gd wants us to walk.

Perhaps this explains the great resistance that Rambam (Maimonides) initially faced when he systematized the corpus of Jewish Law. In any event, it is certainly true that we constantly try to make sense of the world around us, and, to the extent we can figure out the governing principles underlying a system, we can use that system to our advantage. This is the basis of all science and engineering, and in many ways it has greatly improved our lives.

There are some difficulties with this approach however. When we look at a system, we may be able to look at its parts and their interactions and begin to figure them out. But in any real physical system there are non-linearities – feedback loops, that give rise to behaviors of the system as a whole that cannot be explained simply as an interaction of the parts. Human consciousness, for example, is often described as an “emergent property” of brain function. Subjective, human consciousness, which can be self-aware, is obviously based on the neural networks in the brain, yet it appears sufficiently different from simple patterns of neural activity that it cannot be explained solely on that basis.

In addition, systems exist within an environment, and the environment impinges on a system, often changing its behavior. The system also influences the environment, often in ways that are hard to predict. Just focusing on the system itself without considering these environmental interactions is often a recipe for disaster. For example, we know how to extract gas and oil from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing, which gives us access to a valuable resource. It can also cause earthquakes and poisons the local water supply.

It is obvious that the bigger the system, the more parts it has and the more interactions, the more non-linearity and the harder it is to get our heads around its behavior. Now consider Torah. According to our tradition, Torah is the blueprint of creation. It is Gd’s plan for the way the world should be organized and run, and of course, we are included in that creation and in that plan. How is it possible, even theoretically, for us to “get our head around” something which includes our head? How can the finite human mind encompass the infinite wisdom that created the cosmos in all its layers?

In Rabbi Steinsaltz’ opinion, the answer is that it is indeed impossible. We have to understand that Torah is a “bridge to Gd” and humbly accept that we will toil in Torah and never exhaust it. Turn it over and turn it over again, for everything is in it (Pirke Avot V:26). All our categorizations of the mitzvot, all our systematization of the principles of Torah, are bound to founder on the hard rocks of the inadequacy of our intellect to fathom infinity. The difference, the gap, between the finite and the infinite is itself infinite, and nothing finite can bridge it.

When R. Steinsaltz says that Torah is a bridge to Gd, I think that implies that Torah itself is that infinite lifeline that Gd throws us to help us raise our own status from finite creature to something that partakes in the infinity of the Divine. How does Torah accomplish this? From what we have seen, I would suggest that it cannot be through the intellectual study of Torah alone, or perhaps even primarily, that we can cross the bridge. Our Sages intimate as much in various places, e.g.: Study is not the primary thing, action is. (Pirke Avot I:17). Through performance of Torah and living life as Torah prescribes, we can connect with Gd and infuse Divinity into our everyday awareness.

Haftarah: Yishaya 54:1-10

Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, stint not; lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs. For southward and northward you shall spread out mightily… (2-3)

With a slight wrath have I concealed My countenance from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness shall I show you mercy, said your Redeemer, Hashem (8).

I think the main point here is that Gd promises Israel an expansion from its extremely beaten-down state back to its original expansiveness and beyond. In fact, that restricted state arose when Gd “concealed [His] countenance.” That is, Gd allowed us to see and believe that what we see on the surface of life is the be-all and end-all of existence, and that we are at the mercy of random natural laws. Gd informs us that this is not the natural state of human life and awareness; it lasts ” for a moment.” The natural state of life is one of eternal kindness and mercy and a release from living in boundaries. It is a state of expansion to infinity and it is our birthright.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

In the Soncino Press Chumash, the one that we use in Beth Shalom, KI Tetzei is translated as “when thou goest out”.

The parsha continues: “to battle against thy enemies and the L-rd shall deliver them into thy hands…”

This is a reminder that, literally, in battle, victory goes to those whom Gd supports; symbolically, that in any area of life, to be successful we need to align ourself with Gd’s will.

This parsha gives at least 74 mitzvot, ways to align with Gd’s Will, out of the 613 given in Torah ( and some unifying themes are kindness, integrity and purity — all themes which we can strive to live in our lives today in our marriages, business relations, relations with strangers.

The opening illustration is in the case of the beautiful captive a soldier desires to take to be his wife.

The captive is to be given time to grieve and then marriage can take place. This is kindness.

If the soldier wishes to divorce the wife, then she shall be set free, not sold for money, not treated as a slave. This is kindness and integrity — she has been the wife, the relationship was entered into honestly (at least by the soldier — the woman’s rights have not been considered) and also honest relations: she not be treated as property, as a business commodity.

What does it mean symbolically? To me, “go out to battle” means, symbolically to extend Wholeness into specific details, desires, that have not yet become directed to Wholeness, absorbed in Wholeness.

A beautiful captive is a desire that is very appealing but doesn’t seem on the face of it to be aligned to my desire for teshuvah, for return to Primordial Oneness. It is a desire that needs to be given some time before I would act on it: perhaps after awhile, I will see that the desire can fit into the routine things I do every day to deepen my experience of teshuvah and to spread it into areas of my life, of life in general that it has not yet reached.

I wish for all of us that we will enjoy the ability to let go desires that are not aligned with Gd, to transform the ones that have possibilities into ones that actually help us align with Gd, and that we will arrive at a state where we experience that everything is Wholeness; there is no going out, there are no enemies, there is no battle, there are no captives and all the world is experienced as our Self, the Self — Gd.

Baruch HaShem.