Unexpected and Unpleasant Mitzvot

September 13th: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There are an awful lot of mitzvot—613 according to Tradition, and this week’s Torah portion has more individual mitzvot than any other (72!). The large number strains the mind and the memory, and, as a result, the Sages have divided them up into various categories—analytical divisions that speak to the nature of divine obligations. Some mitzvot are only applicable if one lives in the Land of Israel, while others apply everywhere. Some mitzvot are time-bound and have to be done on a schedule, while others apply all the time. Another famous division is explained in the Talmud, Tractate Makkot 23B:
“Rabbi Simlai taught: 613 commandments were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. 365 Mitzvot Lo Ta’aseh (Thou Shalt Nots), corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 Mitzvot Aseh (Thou Shalts), corresponding to the number of the parts of the body.”  

There is also a division which one can see in this week’s portion, mitzvot one anticipates in a regular life, and mitzvot one does not expect—in fact, hopes do not become necessary.

 One of these “hoped against” mitzvot comes at the very beginning of the portion. “When you take the field against your enemies….” (Deuteronomy 21.10) One is not supposed to hope for war. However, if war becomes necessary, there are certain standards which God teaches about how we conduct the war.

Similarly, there are some mitzvot involving severe marital discord. In verse 15 of the same chapter, we read, “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one—when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older.” This is clearly a situation for which one does not hope. However, should it develop, there are standards of fairness (mitzvot) upon which God insists.

The next paragraph’s exigency is nothing short of dreadful. “If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21.18-21.) God forbid that this should ever come to pass! It is certainly not something for which someone hopes. Nonetheless, notice how there is a kind of safeguard in place. Both the father and the mother must participate in the condemnation. If one gets angry and wants to cause harm, he or she cannot act alone. One can also imagine the wayward and defiant son opting out of the family situation; in a sense, he too must participate. Even in this nightmare of a situation, the Torah cautions a kind of propriety.

And, then, there is divorce. “If a man takes a wife and is husband to her, and she fails to please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house…” (Deuteronomy 24.1) The Torah does not encourage divorce, but it does accept that some relationships fall apart. As opposed to some Christian denominations in which divorce is considered a sin and is prohibited, Judaism accepts the fact of divorce and attempts to bring some fairness and respect through the mitzvot of proper divorce.

By the way, I hope that no one reading this ever has the need to divorce, but, should it come to pass, there is an excellent book that discusses dissolving a marriage with decency and holiness: Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies, by Rabbi Perry Netter (published by Jewish Lights). Again, the mitzvah is in behaving with respect and fairness, and not letting the anger or sense of betrayal lead us into anger and vengeance and sin.


 An important final note and caveat:
In addition to whatever positive lessons we may try to draw out of this portion, one cannot ignore the aspects which are repellent to modern sensibilities. Forcibly marrying war-captives, stoning children, male-dominated marriages and divorces, and even polygamy go against our modern sensibilities of fairness, equality, and respect. Thus are passages like so many in this week’s Torah portion difficult to read and revere. Our obligation, with traditional texts such as these, is to reinterpret them so that the literal and ancient reading is not all we have. Things have changed much since the ancient days, and we have, thank God, expanded the notions of true personhood and human rights.  As much as we revere the Torah and see it as the first step in our ancestral quest for wisdom and truth, we also realize that its world is not our world. Indeed, we have made much progress since those days, and the only way we can hold the Torah as holy is in recognizing the difference between ancient forms and eternal truths. We study the ancient forms, but we evaluate them and feel commanded by God to improve those areas of our Tradition that need improving. It is a continuing religious quest for God and holiness, and being Jewish means continuing the work.