Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah is a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully
as our awareness evolves.

Weekly Torah Portion: Ki Teitzei
(Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19)

Week of August 23 - 29, 2015

The legitimacy of evolving interpretation

It is important to realize that Judaism is an evolving tradition. Any true evolution brings changes. What may have been appropriate at one time and place may be inappropriate at another. Parashat Ki Teitzei contains an assortment of unrelated injunctions and regulations. Here's one that falls under the category of "problematic." It is a law that, as far as anyone knows, was never actually enforced.

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them; ... [his parents shall] bring him out to the elders of his city, ... and they shall say..., "Our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard." Then all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shall you put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (21:18 - 21)

Well, that's one way to deal with a rebellious teen! Or, more appropriately, that is one way not to deal with our children. Perhaps, at moments of extreme frustration and anger, some parents may have wished that such a solution was possible, but, fortunately, it was and is not. So what is this universally ignored law doing in Torah? And, what are we to do with it?

Some historians indicate that this law was itself an improvement over previous models in the Babylonian Hammurabi Code, which dictated that the father alone could instigate and carry out the killing of his rebellious son. But rabbinic sources, commenting on this issue, determine that the son would have to be younger than 13, after which he would no longer be his parents' responsibility. But, if younger than 13, how could he be condemned to die for his behavior, since the parents are responsible for any acts by their pre-13-year-old sons? Some authorities find that there could be either a 3-month or a 6-month window, just prior to turning 13, when the rebellious son might do something that could merit this punishment.

Many see this law providing a stern warning to sons (and daughters?) to obey their parents, and perhaps it functioned this way. But it may be preserved in Torah to remind us of the need to honor changing cultures, expanding awareness, and the evolution of consciousness itself.

Such a commandment, in other words, reminds us that Torah needs to be interpreted in light of changing realities. These verses speak not only to the legitimacy of evolving interpretation, but also to the actual need for that expansion. This is the way Torah remains vital and alive, reflecting our past, supporting us in the present, and reaching with us into changes we cannot foresee in the future. The Way of Torah demands us to view ancient laws in light of its enduring and timeless spiritual teachings, and to act to protect and preserve those crucial teachings. The Way of Torah is a Way of Oneness, a Way of Compassion, a Way of Love, and a Way of Justice.

Kindness for all creation

This section of Torah contains several laws insisting on treating animals with greater sensitivity. One such injunction prohibits taking a mother bird along with her young or her eggs, "that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days" (22:7).

And this parashah contains one of my favorite teachings in this regard, relating to the animals who help us with our work.

You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out the grain. (25:4)

While we might be focused on the grain that is processed to provide for our own needs, we are asked to honor the needs of our animal friends. This simple principle promotes an appreciation of the One Life we share with all creatures. What we meet as the Presence within ourselves also manifests in all the forms through which Life awakens. We are taught to be more conscious of the needs of all the lives we touch.

The principle also reminds us that we ourselves are to take time to benefit from the work we do. How many of us take the time to truly enjoy the fruits of our own labors? These days especially, many of us use ourselves up in our work, often providing too little time for honoring our own needs.

And how often we witness reflections of the old saying about the condition of the shoemaker's family's shoes. We are so busy providing and serving others that we often skimp on the time and energy we devote to those closest to us.

It is a matter of integrity

When we are building a new house, this parashah states, we must be careful to put a railing around the roof, lest someone fall and injure themselves (22:8).

We are even instructed about sanitation issues when we are going out to war. We must have a spade with us, along with our weapons, so that when we relieve ourselves, we can cover our excrement. Even in the midst of such a camp, we must honor the Presence of holiness (23:14, 15)

And when we lend money or food to the poor among us, we are never to charge interest (23:20). When we employ those who are poor and needy, whether they be of our own people or strangers, we are to pay them on the day of their work. It is a matter of integrity that the Eternal One demands (24:14, 15).

An energy we all carry

This parashah concludes with the injunction to never forgive the Amalekites. Even the Egyptians are to be forgiven (23:8). But not Amalekites.

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you on the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. (25:17 - 19)

Here is the basis for the noise making when the name "Haman" is mentioned telling the story of Esther on Purim. Haman was identified as a descendant of Amalek. Men used to write the name, "Haman," on the soles of their shoes, and, whenever the name was mentioned, rub their shoes against the floor to blot out the name.

Amalek attacked us shortly after we left Egypt, doing so from the rear, where the sick, the young, and the old walked. Perhaps Amalek threatened to derail the entire enterprise of People-building that was beginning to take place as we entered the wilderness. It turns out that rabbinic literature actually records instances where descendants of Amalek were, in fact, admitted to the community of Israel, yet the injunction still stands.

Rabbi Shai Held, of Mechon Hadar, quotes this teaching of Levi Yitzchak (1740-1809, one of the early Hasidic circle of the Baal Shem Tov, who spoke of our inner Amalek.

It seems that not only are the Children of Israel commanded to blot out Amalek, but also every individual Jew must blot out that evil part called 'Amalek' which is hidden in his heart. As long as the seed of Amalek is in the world, since a person is a miniature world (a microcosm), Amalek exists in the evil potential within the person, which awakens anew again and again to cause him to sin. (Kedushat Levi, Purim)

Received on a deeper level, the Torah always expresses our inner dramas. Levi Yitzchak understood that the impulses attributed to Amalek dwell within us all. We must recognize our inner Amalek, lest we act his energy out in the world. The potential for evil is within us all. To the degree we are unconscious of its presence, we are prone to be overtaken by its impulses at moments of great threat. Only when we are aware that Amalek is an energy we all carry, are we able to avoid acting out such cruelty in our world.

Torah tells us to blot out the expression of those energies. We must never forget.

Focus Phrases

Focus Phrases I seek the deeper meaning of each moment.
I act with greater kindness now.
I accept all parts of myself.

Writing Prompts

Childhood ideas that no longer work for me include. . .
I tend to act unkindly when...
When I have acted hurtfully, I realized...

Photo: Mark Reden