It is time for our weekly discussion of the Torah portion!
This week we have Ki Teitzei, a portion filled with a lot of small details and lesser-known commandments! Including, yes, something related to birds…
But before we get to the birds, let’s discuss something else about the portion, based on Rabbi Shefa Gold’s always fascinating Torah Journeys…
She notes that Maimonides counted the commandments in this portion and there were 72 of them. That’s a lot! We have all these commandments, so what do we start with?
(I note that it’s not “A list of a bunch of commandments”. If the Bible happened to be edited by an academic press, it would’ve been like that. Subheading 2! Underline! We are not an academic press either and can be forgiving of a lack of subheadings. 😉 )
No, the Torah portion starts with something rather unexpected: “If you go out to war against your enemies”.
How does that relate to the commandments?
Well, there are commandments about going to war too, but there is also a deeper meaning, as Rabbi Gold explains. This is about how commandments can be a struggle. Not just doing them (though I’d say, that too…), but also understanding and receiving the values and qualities they are meant to convey.
I am reminded of the classic Chasidic song…
“Essen esst zich, trinkn trinkt zich, vos zol men ton az es davent zich nisht”
Which means, eating and drinking work by themselves, but what can one do if the davening doesn’t go by itself?! Here is Avraham Fried singing it – probably a relatable sentiment.
As Rabbi Gold says:
“Ki Tetze begins by acknowledging the struggle. It’s much easier to be a decent human being when you are at peace… but there is a battle to be waged and that battle will try our decency, challenge our integrity and put every good intention to the test.”
What can be a struggle? Rabbi Gold notes that one possible clue comes from the title of this book of the Torah. Deuteronomy is called in Hebrew “Devarim”. Which also means THINGS (among other things).
(Are we covered in things already? I am covered in books…)
“One voice inside keeps saying that if only I would be more organized then the battle with clutter could be won.
Another voice whispers that perhaps the problem is deeper and the solution more radical.”
(We suggest the Marie Kondo method, it’s not only good for messes, but it also helped me resign from a job!)
Rabbi Gold also has a bunch of suggestions, some are related to the holidays… E.g., on Passover, instead of buying the extremely processed readymade kosher-for-passover food items, cooking and eating simpler foods. (We had to do this because of the pandemic and we survived!)
Another suggestion that you can try RIGHT NOW …welll, ok, *checks time* in a few hours… is about Shabbat.
She suggests that even if you don’t observe Shabbat traditionally, you try turning off the computer/TV for one day.
My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who works so passionately for social justice throughout the rest of his week, turns off his computer before Shabbat and says,
“The world will just have to save itself for the next 25 hours!”
(He still managed to write several books this way, we have a small pile of them!)
And we also have a small pile of Rabbi Shefa Gold’s books – hmm, maybe it’s time for a bundle? (This also brings up one of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s books, because it was blurbed by Shefa Gold 🙂 )
But while we’re at Shabbat, let us enhance your Shabbat experience and your upcoming High Holiday experience at the same time with an excerpt from Wilhelmina Gottschalk’s The Sabbath Bee, from our imprint the Jewish Poetry Project! This book has prose poems, microstories and thoughts about Shabbat – often personifying it or presenting it by analogy to something else…. Like in this chapter: beads.
Shabbat clinks into place with the lacquered clarity of a bead sliding onto a necklace string. At this stage, the new Shabbat is clear and unmarked — a perfect pearl.
It takes its place along the length with nearly a year’s worth of Shabbats, each one engraved with the faces of all the people I saw that day. The workmanship is flawless.
Soon this bead too will grow heavy with the gilt edges of delicate designs, dozens of tiny faces etched upon its surface.
The necklace weighs down like a yoke upon my shoulders, almost choking me.
Is it heavier than usual, or do I simply notice the weight because I know that the jeweler will be coming soon, to examine each individual bead and determine the value of my year?
If you liked the excerpt, you can get the whole book:
It also has genderbent Shabbat Queen!! You need genderbent Shabbat Queen in your life.
The last tidbit I picked from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s The Jewish Book of Days – it is for today (12 Elul) and it relates to the theme of struggle and to the theme of the commandments.
She quotes from the Midrash Tanhuma:
“There were two sittings of Israel where they would meditate on Torah night and day. Twice a year, in Adar and Elul, all Israel would gather and engage in the battle of Torah until the word of the creator was established.” (Noah 3)
What kind of battle was this?! Rabbi Hammer explains. This was the classic Talmudic way of studying:
“Their method was to study in pairs, with each person bringing prooftexts and arguments to one another.”
She also notes:
“Both Elul and Adar are before harvest festivals (Passover and Sukkot). The tradition of Torah study during these months reminds us to gather in the fruit of the Torah as well as the fruit of the earth.”
What does this teach us?
“[T]wo study partners must listen carefully to one another’s positions while holding to their own points of view,” and this “trains us in how to have respectful conflict with one another.”
And if you liked this, we do have a Rabbi Jill Hammer bundle!
(Now that you’ve gotten rid of the things that do not spark joy, you can bring in things that do 😉 )
And at the end, back to the birds!
I just wanted to highlight some of the lesser-known commandments from this portion, and ask you for your favorites.
1. (My paraphrase) If you take a bird’s eggs, chase away the bird first.
Here I must say that I had to change the cover image for the portion, because my first choice had a license that explicitly ruled out its use in a context of chasing away birds. Therefore I can’t show it to you either.
I remember being rather scandalized to realize that this was explicitly stated in the Bible, but I was young and innocent.
(Interestingly, the Talmud discusses people falling from roofs & things falling from roofs, so I guess not everyone put up a parapet, regardless…)
Thank you for following along! Now it is your chance to share some commandments you found interesting, either from this weekly portion or from any other! Chabad brings you the complete list, as per the Rambam.
Some other favorites that are timely:
* Not to destroy fruit trees even during the siege
* Not to insult or harm a sincere convert with words
* Not to move a boundary marker to steal someone’s property
Now it’s your turn!