Parashat Ki Tetzei

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
September 13, 2008 / 13 Elul 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi David Ackerman, rabbi for national outreach, JTS.

September marks new beginnings. Summer’s over, school years have begun, heavy traffic has returned to the roads, the new cultural season is underway. After a (hopefully) restful and restorative July and August, it is time, at least in the rhythm of North American culture, to leave the beaches and mountains behind and get back to business.

So it is in the rhythm of the Jewish calendar as well. By this Shabbat, we’ve made it to the middle of the month of Elul, a time set aside by our tradition for introspection and self-examination, all in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, now but a few weeks away. The Torah readings for Elul, drawn from the later chapters of Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), all contribute to the ongoing internal conversation that we call teshuvah or repentance.

Ki Tetzei adds to that dialogue in its own unique way. A parashah of laws, Ki Tetzei contains, by some counts, 72 mitzvot, more than 10 percent of the Torah’s total list of 613, and more than any other parashah. Most of the genres of Biblical law—criminal, civil, domestic, ritual, individual, national—are represented in our parashah. It’s a veritable mini-manual of Jewish behavioral expectations and norms.

I’d like to read a few of Ki Tetzei’s laws through the lens of Elul and its tradition of thoughtful inwardness. When we explore some of Ki Tetzei’s mitzvot as hinting at our inner, rather than outer, lives, I believe we find a profoundly useful guide to teshuvah (atonement) and heshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul), something of a handbook for the repentance and self-examination that Elul and the Days of Awe call for.

The opening verses of Deuteronomy 22 provide the basis for the command to return lost objects to their rightful owners. Many pages of Talmudic discussion tease out the details and implications of the Torah’s dictate, but I wish to read the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah (returning a lost object) as a metaphor for our inward journeys. Here are the Torah’s words:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deut. 22:1-3)

The lost objects of Elul are our authentic selves, too often not near us, too frequently not even known to us. In Elul we search out our authentic selves, hoping for their return in advance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And as the Torah declares, we must not remain indifferent. Returning to our authentic selves is the necessary and powerful work of this season.

Read in the same spirit, a number of other laws found in Ki Tetzei deepen and enrich our approach to teshuvah. At the geographic center of the parashah we find one of the Torah’s statements about the importance of keeping vows.

When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Deut. 23:22-24)

The Midrash notes a redundancy in the last verse of this passage. Since we are discussing “what has crossed your lips,” why do we also need the phrase “the promise (you have made) with your own mouth?” This apparent doubling leads the Midrash to argue that when making promises, one’s mouth and one’s heart must be aligned.

Teshuvah involves making promises to oneself. We vow, at least informally, to do better in the future, to consider our past behavior and to change it. In that process, we may say things that do not match what is in our hearts. Following the Midrash’s idea, for the external aspects of repentance to be effective, to matter, they must correspond to the internal components. Mouth and heart need to align if we are to find our way back to our authentic selves.

At the very end of Ki Tetzei we find one of the Torah’s statements regarding honest weights and measures:

You shall not have in your pouch alternative weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have complete and honest weights and complete and honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. For everyone who does these things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Deut. 25:13-16)

Again, the Torah’s norm refers to outward behavior. Read as part of our inward focus on self-examination, this mitzvah has a lot to teach us. Our task is to be unflinchingly honest in the work of heshbon hanefesh. No shortcuts allowed. The Hebrew words translated as complete and honest tell the story well. Shleimah means complete or whole. The word shalom derives from the same root. When addressing our inner selves, we need to see the whole picture. Or put a bit differently, wholeness is the goal. Tzedek means honest or just. The word tzedakah derives from this root. When weighing and measuring our lives, we need to be really honest with ourselves, but I sense in this term a plea that we not overdo it. Honest self-examination can be painful, but it needn’t be destructive. Be honest with yourself, but also be just.

The internal journey in search of our authentic selves is hopefully well underway by this point in Elul. Ki Tetzei comes along just in time to serve as a much-needed guidebook and atlas. May your introspective path of teshuvah lead you back to your authentic self in wholeness and joy.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.