To Go Out of the Wilderness

Ki Tetzei By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Sep 1, 2012 / 5772 | Torah Commentary

This week’s Torah portion is directed at Israelites about to “go out” of the wilderness; next week’s portion offers guidance to those about to “come in” to the Promised Land. Deuteronomy is anxious for the Israelites to build a society distinct from the one that had enslaved them and no less distinct from the other societies and cultures that will surround them in the Land of Canaan. It wants a people united in their new nation-state—and, to that end, propounds a series of wide-ranging laws designed to bring and keep them together. The “going out” from all existing precedents must be substantial. The “coming in” must make them worthy of having God’s presence in their midst.

This, I think, is the logic behind many of the regulations in Ki Tetzei; a set of dos and don’ts that in some cases are immediately comprehensible, but in others seem at first glance (or even second) to be of dubious importance. Let’s start with the mitzvot that clearly promote the collective unity. Sheep or oxen that belong to “your fellow” and have wandered off must be returned to their owner or, if that is not possible, held and sustained until claimed. Israelites must do the same with lost garments or “anything that your fellow loses and you find” (22:1–3). The word translated as fellow by JPS literally means brother: a member of the national-religious family of Israel. “You must not remain indifferent” or look away. If your brother’s ass or oxen have fallen in the road, help him to raise them up (22:4). Interest cannot be collected on loans of money or food to Israelites, but is permitted on loans to foreigners (23:20–21). Do not enter your neighbor’s house to seize a pledge that is the basis of a loan, or hold the pledge overnight if he needs it for warmth (24:10–13). You may eat grapes from your neighbor’s vineyard and pluck ears from the standing grain in your neighbor’s field (23:25–26). Olives left on the tree or grapes left on the vine after initial harvesting are to remain there for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” (24:20–22).

The main point of that final sentence—explaining the reason for all the rest—is its pronoun: second-person singular. You were a slave in Egypt—not you as an individual, since with few exceptions the generation of adults who had been enslaved have died out in the wilderness, but you the community of Israel—addressed as one here and elsewhere in the Torah, made into one people by collective observance of laws that bind them to each other and separate them from non-Israelites.

This same process seems to be at work in many regulations where it is not immediately obvious. There is, for example (22:13–21), the case of the man who comes to hate his wife, and defames her with the charge that she was not a virgin when they married. Such defamation of character is fatal not only to marriages, but to the community as a whole. Think of children whose parentage and standing is suddenly rendered uncertain. Distrust would quickly spread from the marriage bed—and marriage contracts—to every other sort of union. The very next statutes concern adultery, an “evil in Israel” or any other society. Another law: if a man has two wives, one loved by him and the other not, his inheritance must go to the firstborn even if he is the son of the unloved wife. Affection is fickle and unpredictable. The social system requires order and transparency. Neighbors cannot always tell which wife is more beloved by her husband, but they will know which child came first, and plan accordingly. Even the awful law pertaining to the “wayward and defiant son,” which the rabbis couched in so many conditions as to make it virtually impossible to apply (21:18–21), seems designed in part to demonstrate that family rebellion threatens the community as a whole, and must be dealt with collectively. The parents declare the son’s crimes to the elders, and he is killed by the entire town. “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; all Israel will hear [or: obey] and be afraid.”

The point, once again, is what all of Israel will do as one. Earlier sections of the Torah stressed the need for the children of Israel to maintain ritual purity in their wilderness encampment, because God dwelt among them. Deuteronomy is concerned with purity in the Israelite army as it goes into battle, the Ark of the Covenant in the lead, and with purity, ritual, and moral in the Land of Israel. Over and over (see, for example, 23:2–8), the Torah talks about who may be a part of the “congregation of the Lord.” It is one thing to maintain ritual purity in the wilderness, where the children of Israel are pictured as surrounded by no one and nothing. A man who is impure simply goes out of the camp until sunset, washes, and reenters. There is nothing out there to worry about—because there is nothing out there.

The Land of Canaan is another matter entirely. It is full of Canaanites, meaning customs, cultures, gods, altars, temptations. Deuteronomy is all too aware of how fragile Israelite religion is—a new thing under the sun, the only religion of its kind, devoted to a God who cannot be seen or even imaged. It wants to make sure that the things Israelites see and do every day are utterly distinctive, whether ritual or commercial, private or public. No cult prostitutes in its community. No dishonest weights or measures in its marketplace. Protection of the rights of the stranger and the fatherless. And all the rest.

The Torah tries at times to soften the brutal rules of warfare that are a feature of the ancient world (and of the contemporary world). One senses a certain desperation in Deuteronomy’s unceasing warnings against adopting the customs of other nations and its comprehensive effort to render Israelite society distinct from that of its neighbors. We who are familiar with the phenomenon and price of assimilation cannot avoid reflecting on how, why, and in what ways it is important for Jews to be different, and what price we are prepared to pay for that difference. We who have witnessed and taken part in the reentry of Jews into the Promised Land and the reestablishment of a Jewish nation-state there know what is at stake in Jewish observance, Jewish faith, economic justice, fair treatment of the poor and the stranger, and all the other policies to which Ki Tetzei insists we pay attention.