Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
Last parsha, we began to suggest that all of these random laws are somehow related to the 10 commandments! But what is the larger message that this list of laws is coming to teach us?
Welcome to Parshat Ki Teitzei.
In our last parsha, we talked about how we are currently in the middle of a massive section of laws in the book of Deuteronomy. It's so big that it spans chapters 12 through 26 and more than 4 parshiot where we list law after law on seemingly random subjects.
For example, in our parsha, we hear about the laws of the wayward and rebellious son. About how if you stumble upon a nest of eggs, you should shoo the mother bird away. We hear about the laws of hashavat aveida, returning lost objects, and a list of sexual acts you should abstain from.
These laws are seemingly so fundamental, that Moses says that following them determines whether we receive blessing in the land or we are fated with terrible curses. And the question is. Why these laws? Are there any rhyme or reason to them?
Last parsha, we began to suggest that these laws aren't random at all. They are all somehow related to the 10 commandments! But then, why didn't Moses just keep this section brief? Why not just teach the 10 commandments and call it a day? And, in some cases, like the law of the cities of refuge, we are dealing with laws that seem to contradict the spirit of the original commandments, so 'do not murder' turns into granting sanctuary to murderers. And, finally, while it is certainly very interesting that each of the many laws can be traced back to one of the 10 commandments, and that this massive section of laws is meant to be read together, the question is: why? What is the larger message that this list of laws is coming to teach us?
This week on The Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm Imu Shalev and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. In our quest to understand how these laws fit together to tell a larger story, I want to explore a few more individual laws in our parsha and in previous parshiot and compare them against the original 10 commandments. Do the laws align with the original commandments? Do they contradict? How do they play off one another, and why? If we understand how the laws differ from the commandments, we might understand why Moses chose to teach these differences, instead of opting to briefly list the commandments.
Let's start with arei miklat, the law about creating cities of refuge. For who? וְהָיָ֕ה לָנ֥וּס שָׁ֖מָּה כָּל־רֹצֵֽחַ - And these cities shall be a sanctuary, a place where every rotzeach, every murderer shall flee. As we said in the previous parsha, that word, rotzeach - that's straight out of the 10 commandments - number 6, Lo tirtzach, thou shalt not murder. But it also totally contradicts the commandment! The commandment says thou shalt not murder, and the laws here say, yeah, but if you do murder, you can run away as long as you get to home base before the justice system tags you out. So what gives?
Perhaps, the 10 commandments are telling us about a larger principle: do not murder. But this law is giving that principle some nuance: there are different types of murder, and they are not all treated the same. Let me show you what I mean:
The Torah here says that not all murderers are eligible to feel to arei miklat. Only an inadvertent killer is allowed to flee to a city of refuge. וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ בַיַּעַר, לַחְטֹב עֵצִים - like one goes into the woods with his friend to chop down wood, וְנִדְּחָה יָדוֹ בַגַּרְזֶן לִכְרֹת הָעֵץ - and his hand goes forth to cut the tree, וְנָשַׁל הַבַּרְזֶל מִן-הָעֵץ וּמָצָא אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ וָמֵת - and the blade of the ax slips off from the handle, and hits his friend, who dies. This death happened unintentionally. Now, on the one hand, you could say that implies that he's innocent. He did nothing wrong. But the text still uses the word rotzeach - still calls him a murderer, and while he is not punished like a murderer, he faces exile to a city of refuge. What's going on here?
We tend to look at the Torah's laws very rigidly, in black and white. It's either murder or it's not. But perhaps there's more nuance. Maybe it's not one or the other, there are degrees. And of course, the American legal system also has degrees: 1st degree murder, 2nd degree, manslaughter -- where intent makes all the difference. If you lie in wait to kill someone? You're a murderer. Your punishment is death. If you kill someone purely accidentally, the sages say that you are totally blameless, the city of refuge is not for you. But consider the case of the inadvertent killer. He never intended to kill. He was merely reckless. It was reckless of you to chop wood so close to your friend. You ignored the standard safety regulations that require you to inspect your ax before using it. You have some culpability here. But your punishment is a temporary exile, not death. There are some shades of grey in the commandment not to kill.
Let's take another example of a law in this week's parsha and see how it relates to its parent commandment. כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ - when you buy a new home, וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ, make a fence around your roof or balcony, וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃, let not there be any blood on your house lest any man fall from your roof. What is this law doing in the Torah?!? It sounds like a building regulation passed by the local safety board. Moses says blessings will come to those who build their new homes up to code? And terrible curses will befall those who cut a few corners? Really? But if our eyes casually read or skip over this law, we may miss that this too is an expression of Lo Tirtzach, do not murder. When the Commandment says do not murder, it's not just talking about premeditated mafia hit-men. It's a principle, a core-value of the people of Israel. We are a people who are deeply sensitive to human life. That sensitivity expresses itself in justice with intentional murderers, exile to the reckless manslaughterers, and yes, it even has religious expression in our building codes. Build a fence around your roof. Don't be negligent. Your actions deeply impact others.
What we're starting to see is that this section of laws is sort of an expression of or even a commentary on a larger legal principle that is expressed in the 10 commandments. And maybe that's what these laws are here to teach us: they show us how the larger principles that are the 10 commandments express themselves in everyday life, sometimes with complexity, and nuance.
Let's take a look at a few other cases and see if this pattern continues. If you remember our video from 2 parshiot ago, on Re'eh, we were dealing with the beginning of this legal section. That parsha contained laws about destroying foreign idols, not worshipping God the way others worshipped their avodah zarah, coming to serve God in His special place, including the Levite in our joyous sacrifices, and the rules of how to eat meat, and pour the blood on the ground. We said those laws seemed so random and unrelated, but then we saw how they were all expressions of the command against avodah zarah, worshipping foreign gods. No foreign gods? That's the 2nd commandment. And indeed, that parsha continues to detail the laws of the navi sheker, false prophet who encourages the people to worship foreign gods. The meisit umeidiach, The family member who tries to convince you to worship foreign gods, ir hanidachat, a city that is steeped in idol worship.
But it's not just - oh look - these laws aren't random, they have to do with Avodah Zarah! No, these laws shed light on what the essential value of the second commandment is. Laws against bamot, building an altar in your backyard, and about sacrificing in God's special place, show us that the root evil of avodah zarah is selfishness and personal utility. The altar is not an appliance of convenience, a means of your exerting control over the uncertainty of your life. Instead, the worship of God is about gratitude to the One Creator, and love. We go to His place, not out of convenience, but out of a desire to build a relationship.
Let's keep going. In Chapter 15 we have the laws of shemittah, the Sabbatical Year, and of the Eved Ivri, the Hebrew servant - and these may be the easiest ones to connect to the Ten Commandments. In both cases, there's work for 6 years, and work ceases in the 7th. That is the Sabbath --- we work for 6 days, but then rest on the 7th. In fact, look at the language with Eved Ivri: וַעֲבָדְךָ, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים; he should work for 6 years, וּבַשָּׁנָה, הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תְּשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי, - and in the 7th, he should be sent free, he should stop working. And with the Sabbath: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ - for 6 days you should do all of your work, וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי--שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה - and the 7th day is a Sabbath to God --- on which you don't do any work. The question is, of course, what's the connection between the idea of Sabbath on the one hand, and the ideas of shemittah and Eved Ivri on the other?
The laws of Sabbath are all about recognizing God as our Master and Creator. When you cease from work, from your own creative activity on the 7th day as God did, you admit that God is the ultimate Creator. Our master. And just as there is a sabbath in days, there is a sabbath in years, where we abstain from the creativity of agriculture in deference to God, our Creator. And after 7 years, we free our servants --- as a reminder that only God can be master over a human being.
But the connections don't stop there. Moses says that when the Eved Ivri goes free after 6 years, he shouldn't be sent away empty-handed. The master should provide him liberally with flock and food. Why? וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם - because you should remember that you were slave, too, in Egypt, וַיִּפְדְּךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ - and God redeemed you. ; עַל-כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה--הַיּוֹם - Therefore, I command you today to do this - to take care of your freed servant like God took care of you.
But these ideas, and this language also shows up in reference to the Sabbath. Take a look at the very last line of the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy Ten Commandments. וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם - and you should remember that you were a slave in Egypt, וַיֹּצִאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה - and God saved you with a powerful hand and outstretched arm, עַל-כֵּן, צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת - Therefore, God commands to make the Sabbath. Sabbath, like the laws of kindness toward the eved ivri, demands some sort of memory to being a slave in Egypt, but why?
For the eved ivri, the memory of Egypt functions as a call to empathy. Treat your slave kindly because you once suffered as a slave. Is empathy relevant in the memory of Egypt inspired by the Sabbath? Take a look at the words right before "וזכרת" in the commandment to keep the Sabbath. אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ-וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ-וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרְךָ וְכָל-בְּהֶמְתֶּךָ, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ - you and your children, and your servants, and your animals, and the strangers in your gates --- they should all rest, just like you do, on the sabbath. WHY? וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם - Because remember that you were a slave in Egypt. Sabbath is also about the empathy a master and creator has over those who work for him. In its most simple form, God rested on the 7th day to teach us to do the same. To teach us not to over-create, to teach us to rest. But who needs that rest most? Not the master, but those dependent on him. Those who are worked by him. You were worked very hard in Egypt without reprieve. Therefore, grant reprieve to others: your family members, workers, servants even animals - like the plough-pulling oxen and load-carrying donkeys. So the laws of Eved Ivri aren't just an application of the Sabbath principle; they actually help give shape and color to the multifaceted nature of the Sabbath.
We don't have time to go through every law in this section, but all over, we see this idea, that the laws here are really pointing to deeper values in the 10 commandments. The commandment not to bear false witness? That's about honesty. We value a just legal system intent on reaching truth. And so you need safeguards, which we find here. You can't have one witness, you need two. And, you'll need judges, and officers - שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ - so set up a legal system. צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף - the mandate of the legal system is to pursue justice. Hashavat aveida, returning lost objects? Of course, it's about theft - but God says, don't just avoid stealing, you must actively go out of your way to restore someone's lost property. The na'ara hamiorasa and the sexual prohibitions in our parsha? Those too point to a deeper value - do not betray sacred relationships. Just like the 7th commandment, lo Tinaf, do not commit adultery. And, the wayward and rebellious son, sending away the mother bird - respect the relationship between parent and child, just like the 5th commandment, honoring your father and mother.
These laws aren't some boring hodge-podge. And the laws aren't a black and white list of dos and don'ts. Instead, this section of laws elucidates the underlying values that define us as a people. The many laws show us that the original 10 commandments aren't just rules to follow. They are 10 foundational principles, 10 overarching values that express themselves in many shades of grey. They infuse spirituality and religious meaning in our building codes, and when collecting eggs from a bird's nest. They teach us of the sensitivity to human life, and of the empathy that our Creator has for us and demands we have for others. The Torah's laws are good and they inculcate in us a deep sensitivity, they are worth studying and they are worth keeping. If we stray from these values, if we don't become a moral people, we are obviously cursed. Any people that loses its empathy, that is not just, will deteriorate into a cursed existence. And it is through our deep morality, our clinging to the values that we can build a society founded on justice and kindness. That society will be a blessing to those who build it, to those who partake in it. And maybe one day, it will be a model to others, and the people of Israel will finally fulfill their original mission statement, given to Abraham by God - vi'nivrichu bicha kol mishpichot ha'adamah, by clinging to these values, through us, blessing will come to the families of the earth.
Hope you guys enjoyed this video. For more videos on parshat Ki Teitzei check out the links below. Thanks!