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The Unifying Principles of the Laws of Ki Tetze

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Adapted by Shaul Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Parashat Ki Tetze contains the largest number of mitzvot of any parasha in the entire Torah.  Seemingly, it is a collection of diverse laws that for whatever reason are not included in other parashot in the Torah – either Mishpatim, with its monetary laws, or Shoftim, with its guidelines as to communal administration.  However, I shall attempt here to present a general explanation for the connection between the laws in the parasha.
As a first example, let us consider the rebellious son (ben sorer u-moreh).  The Torah notes two specific sins committed by this boy: he is "wayward and rebellious, not obeying his father and his mother," and "a glutton and a drunkard" (21:20).  Ramban understands the crux of the sin here as the rebellious nature of his actions, and the fact that he stirs dissention amongst the people by not obeying his parents.  From the Gemara, on the other hand, it would seem that the sin is defined by the meat that he eats and the wine that he drinks.  Either way, we may say this youth is guilty of egocentric behavior.  A son who does not obey his parents and rebels against them is someone who places himself at the center and does not accept the authority of others.  Such a person does not understand that there are people whom he is obligated to respect, and that he is not at the center of the family.  His gluttonous consumption of food and drink likewise points to an egotistic personality.  He thinks only about himself and does whatever he wishes, without consideration for anyone else.  Thus, the sin of the rebellious son is that he ignores his parents and thinks only about himself.
As another example, let us go back to the description of war at the end of parashat Shoftim.  Today, when we examine the struggle over recruiting charedim into the I.D.F., we understand that when military exemptions that are issued to people with personal reasons for not enlisting, this can lead to an extensive phenomenon.  When the Torah exempts a man who has betrothed a woman or has just completed building a house, it is in fact demanding that a soldier who is enlisted should put his own feelings aside and understand the position of the other party.  Hence, this mitzva, too, deals with an aspect of egoism.  The Torah requires that instead of thinking about himself and his own problems and excuses, the soldier should put himself in the shoes of the other person and thus understand why that person cannot be enlisted, but rather should remain behind with his new wife, or in his new home.
Another example is the law concerning the yefat toar – the beautiful woman captured during the course of battle.  The Torah commands that the soldier think not only of his own desires, but also of the situation of this unfortunate woman who has just lost everything dear to her and whose nation has lost the battle.  Instead of the soldier placing his proud, victorious self at the center, he must show sensitivity to the plight of this woman, and grant her time to mourn for her family – and time to himself, to think more calmly about whether he really wishes to marry her.
The idea that connects all of these laws is the obligation to see the world not only from one's own perspective, but also to take note of the other people involved.  This point also assumes broader significance.  The Torah discusses the matter of a wife who is less loved, and commands that if this wife bears the first-born son, he must be given his due and not passed over in favor of the son of a wife who is loved more.  Here the Torah commands a person not to put himself at the center, by granting the double portion due to the firstborn son to the son of his favorite wife. Rather, he must place at the center the continuity of generations, symbolized by the inheritance, and to give the inheritance to the son to whom it rightfully belongs.  One's own personal interests should not take preference over the chain of generations and the family tradition.
The other theme that connects the mitzvot in the parasha is the concept of "lifnim mi-shurat ha-din" (beyond the letter of the law).  The Torah commands us to chase away a mother bird before taking her chicks or eggs from the nest.  Here we are actually required to act "beyond the letter of the law," as it were: although we rule over the land (in accordance with God's command, "Fill the earth and subdue it"), we must still consider the suffering of animals and be merciful towards them.  According to this explanation, it is clear why the reward for this mitzva is long life: by showing compassion to a bird, even though legally there would seem to be no requirement for us to leave the mother bird alive, we behave in a manner reminiscent of God, Who is merciful towards us, even though there is no objective reason why we should live in the world.  Through our compassion for the bird we bring about God's reaction, "measure for measure" – He is merciful towards us and grants us long life.
Another example of the same idea is to be found in the law concerning loan collection at the end of the parasha.  Although one is permitted to collect a loan that has come to term, one must act "beyond the letter of the law," as it were, and stand outside the debtor’s house, not entering inside.  The same idea is expressed in the prohibition against taking a widow's garment as a pledge, even though there is seemingly no legal reason why a person should not collect what is due to him.
The same concept arises in the law of returning a lost article.  The Gemara records a debate as to whether the requirement to return a lost article belongs to the body of monetary laws or whether it is an act of kindness.  This dual view may be explained by the fact that this unit appears both in parashat Mishpatim and in our parasha. In parashat Mishpatim it is treated from the monetary perspective, while our parasha sheds a light of "beyond the letter of law" on this same mitzva: you must return this article even though the dry law would seem to regard it as yours.
In summary, we may say that this parasha contains mitzvot of two types.
  1. Some mitzvot emphasizes the idea that a person must not place himself at the center; he must develop other considerations, including respect for parents, family tradition, and sensitive situations of others.  To this category we may add the laws pertaining to rape, where the rapist places his personal desires before the suffering of the victim, and the law concerning the prostitute, who places her interests before other values such as preserving family honor.
  2. Other mitzvot urge one to act "beyond the letter of the law."  It is perhaps for this reason that Ammonites and Moabites cannot become part of Am Yisrael, for they displayed exactly the opposite behavior: when Benei Yisrael journeyed by and were in need of food and water, the Ammonites and Moabites based their behavior on dry, legal, practical considerations, instead of acting kindly beyond the letter of the law.
(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tetze 5763 [2003].)