This week’s Torah portion is Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.
The parsha of Ki Teitzei can feel a bit disparate. There isn’t an overarching storyline like we find in other parts of the Torah.
Instead, we find a list of verses telling us what we can and cannot do, what we should and should not do. These topics are quite varied and include how to treat female captives of war, how to deal with lost property, the humane treatment of animals, inheritance rights, the sanctity of a military camp, gleanings for the poor, caring for strangers, orphans and widows, and lending at interest. These are among our responsibilities.
The topics, while seem to be unrelated, teach us a great many lessons. Among them:
We are reminded that as human beings we are not the only sentient beings on this planet.
Those of us who qualify as the haves are reminded quite bluntly of the have-nots, what our responsibility is to them, and that our positions could change at any moment.
As Jews we live in relationship to one another and we have communal responsibilities — legal, financial, judicial, military.
We are reminded that as Jews are not the only people on this planet, we have to live in community with others as well.
We are advised that for everything that we can explain, there are many things that we cannot explain, whether they come in the form of natural events, or commandments or inspiration from within.
The seemingly unrelated list of do’s and don’t’s in Ki Teitzei facilitates the deep personal work required during the month of Elul. It is during this time, right before the High Holidays, that our sages set aside an entire month for introspection, for us to think about who we are, where we belong, and our relationship with both people and God.
There are two verses in Chapter 22 that particularly speak to me: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow” (22:1) and “You shall do the same with his ass, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you with anything that your fellow loses and you find, you must not remain indifferent.” (22:3)
The first verse specifies “if you see” the thing going astray, the next references items already lost. According to this, it doesn’t matter if we see the process by which something is lost or if we find a random lost object after the fact with no idea of its origin; it is our responsibility as good neighbors, as good people, to make an effort to return it to its rightful owner.
From this lesson, we can generalize that we do not have the option of ignoring something if or when we see it. We must do what we can to set things right. And, if we are to repair a problem during or after it happens, how much more so are we to try to prevent a problem before it begins.
Questions for discussion:
Why does the Torah seem to put rulings about fair treatment of people, animals, Jews, non-Jews, men and women all in the parsha? Which lessons have been well received and which have been ignored?
Have you ever witnessed something bad happen and done nothing to stop it? What did you learn from that experience?
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of Olney Kehila.