Shabbat Shalom. This week at Gesher Jewish Day School, I was tasked with teaching 2nd graders about this week’s Torah portion. The goal according to the curriculum map is to teach to the students that this week’s portion is about respect: respect for women, captives, the world order, parents, the dead/life, property and ownership, animals, safety, nature, dignity, marriage, family relationships, cleanliness, the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And for sure Parashat Ki Tetzei touches on all those topics, but they are not all so easy to talk discuss with 2nd graders. The curriculum I was given has very little in the way of materials and the materials I found elsewhere, from G-dcast and Chabad, focuses on the respect for animals.
I mentioned in passing last week that Parashat Shoftim expresses concern for nature, and tells us not cut down fruit-bearing trees belonging to the city with which we may be at war. This week’s Torah portion continues telling us to be concerned with the natural world, and tells us not to be cruel to animals. Even an animal belonging to a potential enemy should not be forced to suffer. If we see an animal bearing too great a load, we should unburden it. In using animals for farm work, humans should never pair two animals who are so disparate in size that the smaller will suffer to keep up with the speed and strength of the larger. Animals should not be muzzled with working on a farm, but should be allowed to eat while they work. The second graders understood all of these concepts, why they show respect for animals, and why it is important for humans to take good care of animals and not abuse them. They had slightly more trouble understanding the commandment in this week’s parasha telling us that if we need food and we come upon a nest of an edible bird, we must shoo the mother bird away from the nest first and only take the eggs. The students said, “The mother bird will be sad when she returns and sees her babies are gone!” But eventually they came to understand even this concept that the care for the already living is more important than the potential life of the egg, and the mother bird can always lay more. But if the eggs are hatched after we eat the mother bird, the chicks will not be able to survive. For such young students, whose diets are almost entirely decided by adults, they had an impressive grasp on concepts of ethical and sustainable food choices and the balance between respecting the natural world and maintaining a nutrient-rich diet.
Explaining the connections in the Torah portion to respecting humans was harder. Parashat Ki Tetze starts off with explaining the proper rules of war, including taking captives. It says that if a soldier kidnaps a beautiful woman from enemy territory, he must wait a month before taking her as his wife. For the time in which the rule was written and enacted, it’s clear to see its progressivism. If the man is displeased with her, he must set her free. He is not to sell her to another man or treat her as a slave. However, it doesn’t not specify if he must properly divorce her and give her any compensation for kidnapping her. It’s also pretty hard to believe that she’d be super into marrying this guy who took her as booty from her home which he and his cohort ransacked and conquered, likely killing her male relatives in the process. There are a lot of uncomfortable unanswered questions about the scenario, and teaching it to 2nd graders was daunting. Instead, we discussed in a general way the importance of showing respect to every person, even if you think they are your enemy, and going into war with an intention of mercy.
The truth is, that’s what this rule was meant to convey for the time. When we read the Torah, it is sometimes difficult to place ourselves in the time period for which it was written, and this parasha is full of such moments. It’s important we understand the context, the civilizations that surrounded the ancient Israelites, and see where our ancestors tried to move their society forward. We learn from this to continue to do that work. Our great sages of late antiquity and the early middle ages knew we can’t really stone to death rebellious children, though that too is a commandment in this week’s parasha. As I said last week, they went to great lengths to ensure justice was always carried out with the least amount of bloodshed possible. Killing an angsty teenager for disobeying his father flew in the face of everything they knew to be holy, despite the fact that our holy Torah says to do so. We know that we need to be able to read the Torah with a critical eye and try to understand the commandment’s purpose for its own time, so that we might understand how it is we should live today.
Lest you get too down on Parashat Ki Tetze and vote it out the Torah entirely, it does also have plenty for us to be proud of. This portion tells us to be kind to animals, even that of our enemies. To lend money to our friends, family, and neighbors, interest-free. To leave the corners of our fields so that the poor may eat without begging. To care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. To care for runaway slaves and not return them to their masters. To keep our promises. To not play favorites among your children. To pay your workers on time. I think from all that, and more, it’s clear that the Torah is deeply concerned for treating people, animals, and our environments with kavod.
The Torah is a Tree of Life, and its mitzvot are meant to guide us toward righteous living, but sometimes it’s the thought process or the intention behind the mitzvah rather than the rule itself that we must learn from and adapt to modern times and our own life situations. Of course, this is no easy task. It involves a lot of gut-checking and a strong moral compass. But if we support each other and make clear our expectations for a healthy community, a respectful society, and peaceful relationships, we can work together to ensure that all people are treated as they want to be treated. May we all find our own path through the minefields of the Torah, to pleasantness and peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.