Parshat Ki Tetzei 2018
One of the more delightful Woody Allen movies of recent years (2010) is “Midnight in Paris,” a tale about an American script writer (and wannabe novelist) from Hollywood visiting Paris with his fiancée. Each night at midnight he is transported back to the golden 1920s where he rubs shoulders with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and dozens of other luminaries. While visiting the 1920s he and a woman of the time fall in love, but it soon becomes clear that her ideal period is le belle epoche – the 1890s. The message of the movie is delivered by our hero who says that whatever period we live in becomes commonplace and boring, and some earlier time is perceived as better and more interesting.
I don’t think many people consider our age boring or commonplace. Many of us grew up on the old newsreels of early Israel with young men and women in kova tembels dancing the hora in the streets at night after a long day of working the land. We asked a friend who grew up here then what it was like. She said Israel was never the Israel that we saw in the newsreels.
These thoughts about past and present came to mind while reading today’s parsha, one that is chock full of mitzvoth of all sorts. The question is whether Israel, as Canaan, as Palestine, as Israel, was ever the way it was supposed to be in terms of these many mitzvoth?
If we want to be realistic, which means cynical, we’d have to say that some of the mitzvoth may have been observed, but not all of them, or all of them were observed but not at the same time, or some variation. So, no. The answer is no.
Moshe is running out of time. He’s given them the history and the warnings (the really big warning, the tochecha, will be read next week) and now he’s giving them behavior rules for when they enter the country.
If we look at the mitzvoth we can perceive three interwoven strands: how to interact with one another, how to interact with nature and how to interact with God.
I mentioned Danny Birnbaum before. His actions were aimed at people – whether Arabs in Maale Adumim or Bedouin down south. The idea was and is for people to work together, earn together, help each other and live together.
And then there’s the environment. Think of how many plastic bottles were not thrown into the sea because of Sodastream. Concern for nature – that’s a basic element of our mitzvoth.
Among the many mitzvoth in the parsha are some that deal with extreme situations we don’t usually encounter. Look at the opening paragraph, for example, which deals with wanting to marry a beautiful captive woman after a war. While we have wars at irregular intervals still the particular case cited here is unusual. But the bottom line message is unequivocal and clear. Despite the woman’s inferior position by virtue of her being a captive, we have to respect her, and every person no matter who he is or what his situation.
#Metoo is here too. We have laws applying to all manner of sexual exploitation – sleeping with a betrothed woman in the city elicits a different punishment from the same act in the field. A man who accuses a woman of not having been a virgin on their wedding night can be fined if the accusation is not true. (If it is, she can be stoned, and not with marijuana.)
We also have to deal with nature properly. Not ploughing a field with an ox and a donkey together prevents cruelty to animals that can’t work at the same pace. Shooing off a mother bird so we can take her eggs or young chicks will prevent the mother bird from seeing her loss. (Could we say that this was what Trump was doing when he separated children from parents at the borders?) We could probably even interpret the ban on sha’atnez, wool and linen together in the same cloth, as a ban on the genetic engineering of crops. Depends how far you want to take it.
Round and round the mitzvoth go, touching on cleanliness in the camp (because it is holy), paying salaries on time, not carrying out fruits or produce from another’s field (you can eat your full while sitting under the tree), not abandoning a person’s animal found wandering in the field, and keeping watch over items another person has lost.
If you make a vow to God, you had better carry it out quickly. Even better – don’t make vows. Anything that drops while you’re reaping or collecting from the fields – is to be left there for the poor to pick up. Everyone should be able to share.
What we have here are basic laws for the proper functioning of society. The overriding concerns are for mutual assistance, care for those who are weaker, concern for the environment, and moderation, in what you do and the money you make.
Every year, when we read this parsha, I feel that those in charge should read and heed. But it goes deeper than that. We as a people have become definitely more self-centered, allegedly more self-sufficient (it’s an illusion) and sadly turned off by much of what we see around us.
For the new year I am hoping, hallucinating, for another Soda Stream Cinderella story, one in which our political and economic and social leaders are banged on the head by a fairy godperson and suddenly discover the wonders embodied in today’s parsha. I’m allowed to dream.
Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova. See you next year.