Ki Teitzei: The importance of interpretation

Tonight’s parasha is Ki Teitzei, meaning “when you go,” and covers Deuteronomy 21:10 through 25:19. This parasha is teeming with topics that are all worthy of their own discussion, since tonight’s portion contains 74 mitzvot! Some are about kindness to animals, some are about mixing fabric types or crops, others include the supposed prohibition on crossdressing or the way we are supposed to treat our kidnapped wives.

However, tonight I’m focusing on just two.

Firstly, we have the commandment regarding a rebellious son:

(יח) כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֣ה לְאִ֗ישׁ בֵּ֚ן סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמוֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֣נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֔עַ בְּק֥וֹל אָבִ֖יו וּבְק֣וֹל אִמּ֑וֹ וְיִסְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (יט) וְתָ֥פְשׂוּ ב֖וֹ אָבִ֣יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ וְהוֹצִ֧יאוּ אֹת֛וֹ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֥י עִיר֖וֹ וְאֶל־שַׁ֥עַר מְקֹמֽוֹ׃ (כ) וְאָמְר֞וּ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא׃ (כא) וּ֠רְגָמֻ֠הוּ כׇּל־אַנְשֵׁ֨י עִיר֤וֹ בָֽאֲבָנִים֙ וָמֵ֔ת וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּ֑ךָ וְכׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל יִשְׁמְע֥וּ וְיִרָֽאוּ׃ {ס}
(18) 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, (19) 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. (20) 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.” (21) 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.

This sounds troubling - of all things, why is this rebellious son given the death penalty seemingly out of nowhere? It sounds like the parents don’t have any choice in the matter - and what child hasn’t gone through a rebellious phase? Well, that’s when we turn to our great sages to interpret the Torah.

In the Talmud, interpretations vary about exactly defines a rebellious son. No matter how you read it, some assumptions have to be made to understand the law. For example, what exactly does it mean to be a glutton or a drunkard? The son would have to be both at the same time. The rabbis’ interpretations become more and more elaborate until we approach this section of the Talmud (which I’m editing for brevity):

אלא בשוה לאביו קאמר תניא נמי הכי רבי יהודה אומר אם לא היתה אמו שוה לאביו בקול ובמראה ובקומה אינו נעשה בן סורר ומורה מאי טעמא דאמר קרא איננו שומע בקלנו מדקול בעינן שוין מראה וקומה נמי בעינן שוין כמאן אזלא הא דתניא בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר כמאן כרבי יהודה

The boy’s mother must be identical to his father in several aspects…. If his mother was not identical to his father in voice, appearance, and height, he does not become a stubborn and rebellious son. …
What is the reason for this? As the verse states: “He will not obey our voices ..., which indicates that they both have the same voice. And since we require that they be identical in voice, we also require that they be identical in appearance and height.
...There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be one in the future, as it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements that must be met in order to apply this halakha.
And why, then, was the passage relating to a stubborn and rebellious son written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for your learning, this being an aspect of the Torah that has only theoretical value…

That’s incredible. This method of interpretation gives us so much freedom with the Torah, doesn’t it? We see a mitzvah that sounds immoral, but if we look at it under a microscope, we realize that’s not really what the Torah says at all. This is why studying is such an important part of the Jewish tradition.

Moving on, there are another passages that don’t get the same amount of modern “press” as the rebellious son, but they seem to be equally important - if not more important. In chapter 22, we learn:

(א) לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ׃ (ב) וְאִם־לֹ֨א קָר֥וֹב אָחִ֛יךָ אֵלֶ֖יךָ וְלֹ֣א יְדַעְתּ֑וֹ וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ֙ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ וְהָיָ֣ה עִמְּךָ֗ עַ֣ד דְּרֹ֤שׁ אָחִ֙יךָ֙ אֹת֔וֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹת֖וֹ לֽוֹ׃ (ג) וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֗ה לְכׇל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃ {ס}
(1) If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. (2) If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. (3) You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

And in chapter 23:

(טז) לֹא־תַסְגִּ֥יר עֶ֖בֶד אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֑יו אֲשֶׁר־יִנָּצֵ֥ל אֵלֶ֖יךָ מֵעִ֥ם אֲדֹנָֽיו׃ (יז) עִמְּךָ֞ יֵשֵׁ֣ב בְּקִרְבְּךָ֗ בַּמָּק֧וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֛ר בְּאַחַ֥ד שְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ בַּטּ֣וֹב ל֑וֹ לֹ֖א תּוֹנֶֽנּוּ׃ {ס}
(16) You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. (17) He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.

These sound like pretty obvious moral laws to us now. Be nice to each other. But in a time and place where slavery is legal and of everyday business, this is absolutely radical.

The instructions on freeing people from slavery is separate from the instructions on how to treat your objects or livestock or even the poor in your midst. Instead of talking about charitable deeds, like when it talks about widows or poor laborers, the Torah doesn’t tell us to pity people who were recently enslaved. It goes out of its way to talk about them as equals who can choose where to live and how they want to live!

And on top of that, I was stumped trying to interpret this verse because, you might remember, many of our moral instructions say to do this or that “because you were slaves in Egypt.” But that’s not in this parasha at all.

I personally think the only way to understand this passage is that the Torah is emphasizing the distinction between property rights and human rights. We don’t support oppressed people because we used to be oppressed. Not here. We support oppressed people because that is the right thing to do - not even as a moral choice, as a “well, if you like the person who ran away from his slaver.” Not “if it doesn’t cause you undue financial hardship.” Not “if it seems important to you at the time.” No, this is part of the fundamental makeup of society, the crucial difference between people and things. The Torah leaves absolutely no room for question.

But, as before, let’s consult the Talmud for its insights.

There are many opinions, because that’s what the Talmud does. This is what I found:

רב חסדא ערק ליה עבדא לבי כותאי שלח להו הדרוה ניהלי שלחו ליה לא תסגיר עבד אל אדוניו (שלח להו (דברים כב, ג) וכן תעשה לחמורו וכן תעשה לשמלתו וכן תעשה לכל אבידת אחיך שלחו ליה והכתיב לא תסגיר עבד אל אדוניו) שלח להו ההוא בעבד שברח מחו"ל לארץ וכדרבי אחי ברבי יאשיה

...Rav Ḥisda’s slave escaped to Bei Kutai,.... He sent a request to the residents of that place: Return him to me.
They sent a response to him: The verse states: “You shall not deliver to his master a slave,” so we will not return this slave to you. He sent a response to them: The verse also states with regard to lost items: “And you shall restore it to him…and so you shall do for his donkey and so you shall do for his garment and so you shall do for anything your brother has lost”...
They sent a response to him again: But isn’t it written: “You shall not deliver to his master a slave”?
Rav Ḥisda sent a response to them: That verse is referring to a slave who escaped from outside of Eretz Yisrael...

I tried to find context. What I found was this.

גופא אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל כל המשחרר עבדו עובר בעשה שנאמר (ויקרא כה, מו) לעולם בהם תעבודו

Anyone who emancipates his slave violates a positive mitzva, as it is stated: “Of them may you take your bondmen forever” (Leviticus 25:46). This is a positive mitzva requiring that one subjugate slaves their entire lives. Therefore, it is prohibited to emancipate them.

This hurts. It hurts to read, but how much more must it have hurt for the people who were directly affected by this ruling, for the people who the rabbis treated like donkeys or garments, for the history after the Talmud where these opinions were considered for literal millennia!

If you google the phrase “slave mitzvah,” this opinion is still the first halakhah to show up, totally uncritically! Not the mitzvah to assist someone who escaped human trafficking, but a mitzvah that you couldn’t free a slave even if you wanted to! I’m not going to get into the minutiae of these mitzvot, of what nationalities deserve to be enslaved, because I don’t want to even repeat these arguments.

I want to understand Torah. We’re supposed to wrestle with it, not necessarily to agree, right? That’s how the oral Torah, our tradition of study, can preserve our tradition in a beautiful way.

But what do you do when the written Torah is radically good but the oral Torah rejects that? When Gd Gdself said “human life has value,” and the Talmud said, “Not for this human life.” How can we reconcile any of this with what we actually believe and practice?

I don’t have an answer.

I don’t know more than our sages. I know so much less of the Torah than they did, and I am still struggling to understand the basics of what other people have spent a lifetime studying. But they can still make mistakes. Those mistakes can be dangerous. They can hurt people.

While trying to understand Ki Teitzei, I came across other talmudic wisdom which I think helps to make sense of this:

(יא) אַבְטַלְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, חֲכָמִים, הִזָּהֲרוּ בְדִבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁמָּא תָחוּבוּ חוֹבַת גָּלוּת וְתִגְלוּ לִמְקוֹם מַיִם הָרָעִים, וְיִשְׁתּוּ הַתַּלְמִידִים הַבָּאִים אַחֲרֵיכֶם וְיָמוּתוּ, וְנִמְצָא שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם מִתְחַלֵּל:

Sages, be careful with your words, lest you become obligated in an obligation of exile and are exiled to the place of evil waters, and the students who follow after you will drink and will die, and thus the name of Heaven is profaned.


(יח) כָּל הַמְזַכֶּה אֶת הָרַבִּים, אֵין חֵטְא בָּא עַל יָדוֹ. וְכָל הַמַּחֲטִיא אֶת הָרַבִּים, אֵין מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת תְּשׁוּבָה. משֶׁה זָכָה וְזִכָּה אֶת הָרַבִּים, זְכוּת הָרַבִּים תָּלוּי בּוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים לג) צִדְקַת ה' עָשָׂה וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל. יָרָבְעָם חָטָא וְהֶחֱטִיא אֶת הָרַבִּים, חֵטְא הָרַבִּים תָּלוּי בּוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (מלכים א טו) עַל חַטֹּאות יָרָבְעָם (בֶּן נְבָט) אֲשֶׁר חָטָא וַאֲשֶׁר הֶחֱטִיא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Anyone who brings merit to the many, sin does not result from him. And anyone who brings the many to sin is not given enough [time] to repent.

The rabbis acknowledge that they can mess up, and when they do, their words become like poison - hurting not just themselves, but their students and everyone who learns from those students.

To me, the takeaway from Ki Teitzei is:

When we read the Torah, we all take something different away from it. It may be helpful. It may be harmful. But as soon as we think we’ve got it all figured out, that we’re doing the right thing and following our own personal code of conduct to the letter - if we totally understand what is right and wrong, how we know what to do for any situation no matter who is involved or what’s at stake, how we’re going to look good for everyone else whose opinion matters to us - how the ideas that challenge us are theoretical, or don’t apply, or don’t need to be disputed at all -

That’s when we need to stop. And question. And look for answers as if we’re starting from scratch.

Right now, we’re defining how the Torah will be read for our own generation and the next and the next. We are all responsible for telling each other what the Torah means. We are the ones who choose whether Torah is helpful or harmful for the generations that come after us.

I hope none of us takes that responsibility lightly.