Ki Tetze is the Torah portion with the most commandments: 74 to be exact but the first two words say it all: if (or when) you go out. To me, it declares that the Torah is not only a book between an individual and his or her self, but about us and our interactions in the world around us; what we do and how we behave when we go out.
Over this summer I had the honor and pleasure to travel extensively in the Western US and Canada for personal and professional reasons. I got to spend Shabbat in different communities and experienced warm, caring, friendly hospitality. Walking into shul hundreds of miles away, the familiar melodies and sounds wrapped me (what? same adon olam tune?); I felt like I was visiting long lost relatives.
There are a lot of things I love about Judaism and this is definitely one of the top: that you can take it anywhere; that it doesn’t depend on weather, location, anything. Once a week we pause; once a year, we clean the slate; we advocate for improving the world; we love an intellectual challenge, a good cause, a delicious meal. We say lechayim and take on life. We do so wherever we go, and we go pretty far. When Rabbi Yehuda Halevi of the 11th century wrote in Spain “my heart is in the east while I am at the end of the west”, he had no idea how far west we would go.
The Torah portion of Ki Tetze starts with how one behaves in war. How unusual for a “spiritual” book, a book about how we come close to G-d, to address us when we’re not at our best; but even then, the Torah can be with us. The rabbis of course took it an extra step: not only a physical war against outward enemies, but against the hardest enemy of all, our inner inclination; that mischievous voice that gets up before us and goes to bed after us, and derails us from being the best of who we are. And why now? Maybe because this is what Moses wanted to remind us of in his farewell speech, and maybe because just around the corner are the High Holy Days, our annual anniversary to rethink and calculate our actions.
Ki Tetze includes other issues and mitzvoth. Indeed, under the premise of “going out”, it seems like there is no area of life that this parasha doesn’t touch, from what kind of cloth and clothing to wear; what to do with a bird’s nest; the need to build a railing on a high roof or balcony; laws regarding marriage and divorce, and more. Taking Judaism everywhere is not just about geography but about its ability to be present in all aspects of life.
There is one mitzvah about returning lost objects, and the stories around the extent to which our sages went in order to fulfill it are both fun and educational. That mitzvah ends with three superfluous words: “lo tuchal lehit’alem”, you will not be able to turn away (or ignore, Deuteronomy 22:3). It’s possible to read it as a continuation to the commandment, and therefore another instruction, emphasizing our obligation to care, to pay attention.
But it is also possible to read it as a fact, as if saying, that if we follow this way of life, we would grow within us a heart and mind that truly care about others. Looking out for others and even their belongings will become second nature to us. We will not be able to turn away.
This, to me, in the essence of our teachings. The Torah breaks it down for us in little chunks of do this and don’t do that so we can deal with the complexity of the task but sometimes spending too much time too close to the ground makes us miss the bigger picture. Moses before in his farewell wants to make sure we know of both: the minute details of the daily operation along with the grand mission, for one cannot exist without the other. Shabbat Shalom.
This article also appeared in this week’s jweekly: http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/72544/torah-if-you-go-out-take-the-torah-with-you/