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Ki Tetze 2010

Parshat Ki Tetze         21st August 2010         11 Ellul 5770

(This Dvar Torah was written to mark the end of the sheloshim for Phyllis Saunders, Faige bat Shimon HaLevi)

Today’s parsha begins with war and ends with war. Superficially it begins as a continuation of the halachic rules of war already mentioned in the previous parsha of Shoftim. However, the first war described is against an unknown, unspecified and unidentified enemy. It is so to speak, a generic war, fought for causes that are not clear and in undetermined circumstances.  

The first war is not a mandatory one. The Torah prefaces it with the word “ki” – when or if – you go to war. Many of the commentators have transferred the scene of battle from warring with external physical enemies to a struggle with one’s own self and one’s base desires and inappropriate behaviour. Going to war against “your enemy” is thus really going to war against one’s own self.  Therefore, in this light, the examples that the Torah gives us in this week’s parsha are most pertinent to a war with one’s own weaknesses and failings.

The second war is one of the mitzvot of the Torah. It is described at the end of the parsha and is fought against a bitter age-old foe, Amalek, and is a war of self-preservation. It is obligatory on all. It is to save Israel from the hands of an enemy whose sole intention is to annihilate us. The wars therefore differ not only in purpose and cause but in intensity as well. In the war against Amalek we seek not temporary triumph but permanent achievement. We seek literally the obliteration of Amalek.

The parsha of Ki Tetze contains 74 mitzvot, 27 positive and 47 negative. In this it resembles more the parsha of Kedoshim in Vayikra than it does the other parshiyot of Devarim, which are more general and are devoted to national history and Jewish destiny. But the mitzvot in Ki Tetze are the backbone of all Jewish history and are the tools of survival that insure that there will always be a Jewish destiny to pursue. It is undoubtedly with this in mind that the rabbinic commentators over the ages interpreted the opening verse of the parsha - "When you go out to war against your enemy" - in an allegorical and not merely a literal sense. The "war against your enemy" refers to the ongoing war of conscience and morality within ourselves in which we are constantly engaged all of our lives. "The enemy" lurks within us. It is a war between right and wrong, discipline and hedonism, instant gratification and long-term benefit. Every day of our lives we make these choices and fight these battles. The Torah, which always advises us to choose life and eternity, supplies us with these mitzvot - the material aid in our struggle.

The Torah scroll is mostly formatted in justified columns. The only punctuation breaking up the narrative is a system of blank spaces and skipped lines. Eliyahu Ki Tov in his monumental work Sefer Haparshiot explains that the blank spaces serve two purposes. The blank spaces that are located in the middle of a line of words (called a Satoom - sealed-space) signify the end of one topic and the beginning of another related topic. The blank spaces that are located at the end of a line of words (Patuach - open-space) signify the end of a topic and the beginning of another unrelated topic. Many printed Chumashim identify these spaces with the Hebrew letters Samech or Pay. The Artscroll Stone Chumash has the actual spaces formatted into their publication.


In our sedra the first seven topics: the woman captive, the first-born's share of his father's inheritance, the rebellious son, hanging and burial after capital punishment, returning lost articles, the fallen animal and transvestism are separated from each other by sealed-spaces, which means that they share a common theme.


As Moshe bid farewell to the Jewish nation he helped them to focus on the simple truths. Self-respect and personal dignity are essentials for building a G-d-fearing, moral family and society.


The underlying support for the Torah's judicial system is the belief that G-d rewards and punishes, and that nothing escapes the inevitable consequences of His absolute knowledge and control. Our responsibility is to overcome the instinctive need to be in control of our own destinies and accept that G-d is the one truly in charge. The focus of this week's Parsha is to extend the acceptance of G-d's absolute control to all areas of social and religious law.

The difference between our laws and all other legal systems is that our laws are divinely commanded, not humanly inspired. As Rabbi Hirsch explained in many of his essays, the Torah was given in a wasteland prior to entering the land of Israel. All other legal systems are the byproduct of an equation made up of the land, the people, and their unique history. These factors come together to formulate laws and statutes that best accommodate the needs of the people in their chosen homeland and the specific circumstances of their histories. Therefore, all legal systems are subject to change as the needs and perceptions of the people inevitably change. The Torah, on the other hand, was entirely presented to the people in the desert before the interaction of nation, land, and history of the nation's interaction with the land. Therefore, the Torah is not a historically or circumstantially biased document that is subject to the changes of time or circumstance.

One method for classifying the 613 mitzvot involves dividing them between the logical, common- sense mitzvot, and the dogmatic, seemingly illogical mitzvot. In fact, our unique challenge is to accept all the mitzvot as being divinely ordained and beyond our limited, logical justification or rationalization. For example, we aim to give Tzedaka because we are commanded to do so; not because we feel compassion or pity for the plight of the poor. Yes, we are supposed to feel compassion and pity; however, the only guarantee that charity will always be given, and be given properly, is if we accept the obligation to do so, regardless of our feelings or moods. Parshas Ki Tetze presents a series of laws that underscore this unique aspect of our  legal system.

Starting with Perek 22, Pasuk 1, we can follow the sequence of laws presented in this week's Parsha.

(1) The law of returning a lost object is detailed. Clearly, this is a legal issue worthy of note. Questions of ownership and proof, personal responsibility for each other as well as our own belongings, are all part of this legal discussion. It makes sense that the Torah would include these fundamental concerns within the legal code of the nation.

(2) The Torah continues to detail our responsibilities for the care and well-being of each other's property in the law of helping the stumbling ox or donkey. These first two laws are socially oriented and could be classified as logical and commonsense.

(3) The law against cross-dressing; and the need for clearly delineated modes of dress between men and woman is commanded.

(4) The law of the Kan Tzipor - sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs or the young birds, is commanded.

Many might argue that these two laws are more dogmatic than rational. Our modern and liberal society certainly feels that dress is a personal issue that is not subject to the whims and concerns of religious instruction. Dress should be a matter of circumstance dictated by comfort and need. However, the Torah feels differently. Men and women must accept their differences and reflect those differences in the dignity of their dress and behaviour.

Regarding the case of the mother bird, the Talmud presents this seemingly compassionate mitzvah as the classic example of a law that must be performed because G-d commanded it, not because of our sense of compassion or pity.


(5) The obligation to build a guard rail around an accessible roof (or pool) is detailed, followed by,

(6) the prohibition against Kilayim - planting mixtures of seeds or plants;

(7) the laws against harnessing an ox and donkey together for the purpose of threshing grain; and

(8) the law of shatnez - not mixing wool and linen threads in the same garment, followed by

(9) the mitzvah of Tzitzit.

Planting mixtures, shatnez and tzitzit are far from logical or rational. They are clearly symbolic or theological having no obvious impact on the interactions of society or justice! Yet, the Torah presents all these laws, mixed together in the course of 12 consecutive verses!

The intent of the Torah is clear. Mitzvot are the commandments of G-d directed to us. Our responsibility is to follow His laws, regardless of time, circumstance or reason. We attempt to understand G-d's intent because it brings us closer to understanding what it means to have been created in His image. However, we accept that our understanding is secondary to the performance of G-d's laws.

Among the many civil obligations in this weeks parsha is the mitzvah of “hashavat aveidah”, to return lost articles to our fellow Jew. Under most circumstances one may not turn away from the obligation to take in and return something lost. The Talmud spends a great amount of time and effort detailing this mitzvah in the second chapter of Tractate Bava Metziah. But the last few words of the commandment need clarification.

The Torah tells us to return lost items and not to shirk our responsibility. The Torah instructs us: "You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother . . . you may not [literally: 'You will be unable'] to hide yourself." (Devarim 21:22-23)

It does not tell us you are not allowed to hide, rather it tells us, "lo suuchal, you will not be able to hide." Why not? Who is stopping you? Surely Hashem does not intervene in our free choice to shun our responsibilities?

When it comes to involving ourselves in communal responsibilities whether it is returning lost souls or lost items, we may try to appear as if we do not know what is happening around us. We may act lost ourselves. We sometimes forget that Hashem is everywhere. We think He is focused on one place and is not interested in the tiny details of a person and a lost object. Such thinking is as silly as the story of the kids at a Bar Mitzvah, when the rabbi stacked a bunch of apples on one end of a table with a sign saying, "Take only one apple please G-d is watching." On the other end of the table was a pile of cookies where a friend of the Bar Mitzvah boy had placed a sign saying, "Take all the cookies you want - God is watching the apples."

 As the Jews were preparing to move on from their experiences in the desert, Moshe instructed them in detailed laws of sensitivity and trust. The law of retrieving and returning a lost object is predicated on trusting G-d. It presumes that all objects are valuable to their rightful owner, either because of their intrinsic value or because they were given to him by G-d. As such, we act on the assumption that the owner did not forgo finding his lost object and would be grateful for its return. That assumption imposes responsibilities on us to do everything in our means to return that item

There are two aspects to the mitzvah of hashavat. One is to return something that your friend unintentionally lost. The other is to save him from a potential, involuntary loss. For example, if he were to have a field next to a river, and you notice that his field will be flooded if you don't take immediate action, the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah obligates you to do all that you can to prevent his property from getting damaged and incurring financial loss.

One who finds an object that has been lost by a Jew is obligated to return it to its owner. If the finder picks up the item and then decides to keep it for himself, he transgresses two negative commandments and one positive one. One may not ignore his obligation and simply walk away from the lost item. If he does so, he transgresses a negative commandment. Men and women are equally obligated in this mitzvah.

If an odd glove, shoe, or similar item is found, one is still obligated to return it even though it is worthless by itself, since it is has value to the owner who has its partner.

There is no obligation to return an item if it is clearly insignificant and the owner does not care about it. Similarly, one need not return an item which has obviously been abandoned by its owner and is found lying in the street.

Although the basic halachah does not require returning the item of a non-Jew it is proper to do so in order to sanctify Hashem's Name.

The mitzvah of hashavat aveidah applies only as long as the owner of the item expects and hopes that it will be found and returned. If, however, the owner has given up hope of recovering his loss and has written it off, the Torah does not obligate the finder to fulfill the mitzvah.

Thus one who finds an item and is in doubt about whether or not he must return it, should resolve three issues: 1) Is the owner aware that he lost the item?  2) Even if the owner is aware of his loss, how does the finder know if the owner has given up hope of recovery?  3) Even if the owner has despaired of recovery, how do we know when he despaired - before the item was found or after?

It is, however, correct to go beyond the strict requirements of the halachah and return any object to a person who offers proof of ownership - even if he has despaired of recovering it. It is considered the "right and proper" thing to do

The verse in our sedra "You shall not see the ox of your brother, or his sheep or goat, having wandered off, and ignore them; you shall surely return them to your brother." [22:1]

is parallel to one we read in Parshat Mishpatim, Exodus 23:4

"When you come upon the ox of your enemy, or his donkey wandering, you shall surely return it to him."

The two verses are similar, but they are also very different. In Exodus we learn that there is an obligation to return lost animals and objects belonging to "your enemy," but here we learn to return property to "your brother." Why is it that when the Torah first mentions this mitzvah, it refers to the ox of "your enemy," while here it speaks about the ox of "your brother?"

The following answer, said in the name of Rabbeinu Bechaya, is that the Torah is teaching us that it is not enough to simply return the ox of "your enemy." There is an additional objective, to remove the hatred from your heart, making him "your brother" instead. The mitzvah must cause you to lose the hatred, and develop feelings of compassion and love in its place.

It is always possible for a person to do a mitzvah as if it had neither meaning nor purpose, and say that he or she has done the mitzvah - end of story. But one cannot ignore the deeper purpose of the mitzvot so many of which are focused upon increasing our concern for our fellow Jews and our fellow human beings. Mitzvot are designed to train a person, to make him or her into a better and more caring person. The mitzvah of returning an object is intended to result not merely in the person finding his goat, keys, glove etc. It is supposed to cause reconciliation and love, even between two people who were enemies.

Mel Lawson

More documents on this Parshah: