With 72 mitzvot, Ki Tetse takes the prize as the most mitzvah-rich parsha in the Torah. The many do- and don’t- commandments touching on subjects as varied as war, marriage, divorce, rape and adultery, returning lost items, interest, paying workers on time, eating from others’ fields (partial list) is meant to prepare the people for actually living in Canaan. The unknown future of When you come to Canaan is about to become Now you are entering Canaan.
But these mitzvoth may have another larger purpose, connected to the transition of the Israelites from an amorphous group of former slaves into a nation with a national identity and ethos. Elizabeth Sachs cites Professor Zheng Wang, who emphasizes the “important function of historical memory as a key element in the construction of national identity.”
For that’s what’s happening. Moshe is dabbling in psychological alchemy. He is taking collective memories from the past and using it to construct what will become our national identity.
According to Prof. Wang, “Ethnic, national, or religious identities are built on historical myths that define who a group member is, what it means to be a group member, and typically who the group’s enemies are. These myths are usually based on truth but are selective or exaggerated in their presentation of history.”
These identities help to shape our behavior and how we view others. “Identities encourage actors to act in accordance with and interpret the world through lenses relating to group purposes,” he writes. How does this work? We see it in our parsha.
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal; no descendants of such, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt… You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live.
“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kin. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the God in the third generation.
And one more: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
How are we supposed to treat these groups? Sachs summarizes it in this way. Toward the Ammonite or Moabite, we are commanded to remain indifferent. Why? Because they don’t share our values (greeting newcomers). The message is choose allies with whom we align in both morals and practice.
To the Edomites and Egyptians we are to remain open – because the Edomites are our relations through Ishmael and the Egyptians did help us when we first came to Egypt. The message is to cultivate the capacity to forgive.
As for Amalek, the most famous of the dicta, we are told to demolish them because of their inexcusable behavior, and the message is: we must work consciously to eradicate baseless hatred.
In addition to these policies toward outsiders, the parsha’s many mitzvoth also give us a general perspective about our responsibilities. As Heidi Rome points out, one really big principle is or should be obvious: the more power you have over others, whether because of your status, your money or your birth, the more responsibility you bear for what happens to them.
From the admittedly problematic opening paragraph of a soldier taking a beautiful captive woman, to a person building a house and having to ensure the safety of those in and on it; from the obligation of judges/society to protect women from male predators to the obligation to help the ox of a person you don’t like if it is lost; from the obligation to be honest in business dealings to being kind to animals.
Some of the laws seem archaic, totally out of sync with modern times, but we should remember that in many cases these were progressive laws in relation to the time in which they were promulgated. And they can be updated. The rabbis used to do that all the time.
One of our illustrious politicians said that he would like to see us live according to the rules that were in effect in the day of Kings David and Solomon. If he were to read his Bible he would see that’s not so smart. But if he had said we could learn from the laws of the Torah regarding how to conduct a socially responsible society and economy, he would have been closer to the truth, albeit his interpretation of how to impose such laws would certainly run counter to how most of us see the world.
It’s all there, in the Torah, a master plan which admittedly may create more questions today than answers. For the perplexed, the rule of thumb is: behave like honest mentschen and we’ll be OK. That’s a good start.