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Torah Commentary
Ki Teitzei (August 17, 2013)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

THIS PARASHAH COULD HAVE BEEN subtitled “Thou Shalt Not” or “When Thou.” It contains a series of “dos and don’ts” to create a transparent society as well as a functional, compassionate community. Some immediately strike us as rational, such as the respectful treatment of female prisoners of war, humane treatment of animals and providing refuge for slaves. Others strike us as curious, such as the ceremony of removing the shoe to indicate renouncing the obligation to marry his brother’s widow and the prohibition of shaatneiz: the mixing of linen and wool. And the one that I find most intriguing: the regulations regarding gleaning in the fields.

In Parashat Ki Teitzei we find the children of Israel still going out: physically from Egypt and spiritually, from enslavement to liberation to the building of a cohesive nation-state. From our present vantage it’s easy to forget the emotional upheavals and adjustments our ancient ancestors experienced.

This generation faced a two-fold challenge: become a single, cohesive community and ensure that it is not subsumed by the cultures that were to confront them when they reached their destination. When they enter the Promised Land they must do so as one. Just as God was singular, they were to be singular — one people.

In his commentary on this parashah from last year, posted on the Jewish Theological Seminary website, Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen reflects:

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 the non-Israelites.

This portion endeavors to present such a blueprint for an orderly and just society, as does so much of the Hebrew Bible.

Shortly they would be encircled by other ancient Near Eastern peoples including, but not limited to, those mentioned in this parashah. They were still in the processes of coalescing and “becoming.” Were they really up to the challenge of resisting integration into the dominant culture? Throughout Deuteronomy there are exhortations to avoid adapting the neighboring customs (and indeed, the prophets later would take the Israelites to task for being seduced by the dominant, often decadent inhabitants). It would not be easy to maintain the Israelites as separate and distinct.

Would following this prescription really separate them? Were the behavioral expectations outlined in this parashah so radically different from the codes of the surrounding cultures at the same the time? In his seminal work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, James B. Pritchard demonstrates that this prescription was not markedly different from those of the surrounding peoples. Even just a cursory scan of the many codes of law from that region at that time confirm that these were not unique. The Code of Hammurabi promulgated similar regulatory behavioral expectations: honest business dealings, procedures for divorce, laws of inheritance and liability, not to mention protection of women, widows and orphans. In fact, nearly every nation dwelling in Mesopotamia at the time had such laws. There were the Laws of Ethnunna, Middle Assyrian Laws and even Hittite Laws. Legal documents have been found written in Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Akkadian.

Indeed, the epilogue to Hammurabi’s Code could have been found in this parashah:

The laws of justice, which Hammurabi, the efficient king, set up, and by which he caused the land to take the right way and have good government. I, Hammurabi, the perfect king, was not careless or neglectful of the black-headed people whom Enlil had presented to me, and whose shepherding Marduk had committed to me; I sought out peaceful regions for them; I overcame grievous difficulties: I caused light to rise on them...I rooted out the enemy above and below; I made an end of war; I promoted the welfare of the land; I made the peoples rest in friendly habitations; they prospered under my protection; I always governed in peace; I sheltered them in my wisdom. In order that the strong might not oppress the weak; that justice might be dealt to the orphan and widow.

Later, he adds: “I, Hammurabi, am the king of justice, to whom Shamash committed law. My words are choice; my deeds have no equal; it is only to the fool that they are empty; to the wise they stand forth as an object of wonder.”

That certainly sounds biblical! Temptation to melt into the dominant culture or, in modern sociological parlance, to assimilate, especially when values intersect, seems to be a timeless challenge. So there must have been other cultural aspects that would reinforce a separation because the differences in values would not serve this function.

Part of the answer must be their unique collective historical experience. Part of the answer also must be their enduring collective memory. But it is ultimately simply a matter of faith!

Join the conversation and post your thoughts.

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