Shabbat Ki Tetze: Doing Battle In Jewish

The first words of this week’s parashah are כי תצא למלחמה ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to do battle.” When one looks for these words in the Torah scroll, it’s easy to mistake the place, for the same phrase appears three times in a short space of parchment. All three have in common that in this part of the Torah our ancestors are recounting the Jewish way to fight.
Jewish tradition does not shy away from any human behavior; we insist that no matter what you are doing, there is a way to do it according to Jewish ethics. A teacher of mine used to say that there’s even a Jewish way to slide into second base – with your cleats down, and without attempting to intimidate the opposing player off the bag out of fear of harm.
Of course, when we read in the Torah during the month of Elul of “going out into battle” we recognize that much of the struggle against evil is that which takes place inside ourselves. Jewish ethical literature requires during this time of Atonement that we seek out the inimical forces that are part of us, and battle them for control of our hearts and minds – and behavior.
But there is also a Jewish way to behave when we are facing a even more difficult and even frightening opposition. In the current climate of rising hatred and fear, many feel that when some would march in our streets declaring the tenets of their hatred, we must be there to counter that voice and resist that hostility. To do this is to fulfill the mitzvah of going out to oppose the enemy – in this case, not only of our well-being and peace of mind, but also of the peace and well-beingn of our society.
If you are moved to “go out against the enemy” – and yes, people who commit violence with word and act are our enemy whether they threaten us or our neighbors – you are nevertheless not permitted to consider yourself as “going out” from your Jewishness. Thus these three repetitions of the phrase ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to battle” are instructive:
When you take the field against your enemies and they are delivered into your hands, and you see something that you want. (Deut. 21.10)
The parashah begins with this warning, that just because you are caught up in a situation of disorder, you may not take advantage of it. You may not simply take anything you see that you decide that you want. A protest is not a time when ethics do not apply – Judaism insists that you be a Jew at all moments, no matter what the provocation or temptation of your yetzer hara’, your evil inclination.
When you go out as a group against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward. (Deut. 23.10)
This command requires that we look at ourselves and the group we have gathered together in order to go forth and do battle. Related to the warning in last week’s parashat hashavua, we must pursue justice justly – just means and just ends. What is the group’s ethic? its rhetoric? its aims? Who are you allying with, to whom are you adding the strength of your voice and your presence?
When you go forth to do battle against your enemies and you see horses and chariots – forces larger than yours – have no fear of them, for HaShem is with you. (Deut. 20.1)
There’s a moment when one’s group may be confronted with a sense of being overwhelmed by the forces we confront: the scale of the national catastrophe, the hostility of White Supremacists, or the militarized police who deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against unarmed people expressing their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Just seeing the riot police show up with their armed vehicles offers a moment of empathy with the way our ancestors must have felt when the Hittites showed up on their shiny chariots with their fearsome spears made of the latest synthetic, bronze.
The Torah’s promise does not mean that G*d will protect us from harm in such a case; indeed, members of our own kehillah have been hurt in gatherings since January 20 of this year. The Torah only promises that G*d will be with us when we go out to do battle with evil, meaning that even if we’re harmed, even if we’re arrested, even if we are – G*d forbid – killed, if we have gone forth to the battle with care for ethics both in our acts and that of the group with which we ally, we will be able to rest in the assurance that our intentions and our acts aimed toward righteousness.
In memory of
Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney (Mississippi),
Edward Crawford (Ferguson),
William Schraeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer (Kent State)
Heather Heyer (Charlottesville)
too many more

Shabbat Ki Tetze: You Can’t Choose Whether, but You Can Choose How

The title of our parashat hashavua is ki tetze, “when you go out”. The Torah is continuing to give instruction for how we shall behave when we go out from our place, and a number of possibilities are offered here. What we come to realize is that there is a Jewish ethic for any act. These ethics are context-bound in their particulars, but we are able to discern what the theologian Louis Jacobs called the meta-message of the Torah: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. 

It’s interesting to note that the words ki tetze make it clear that one has no choice; one does “go out” into the world, out of one’s place. As an ethical teaching, this teaches several lessons:

1. We don’t have a choice but to go out: none of us are able to create a place to be which encompasses all of life – we have to leave it sometimes, as a bird leaves the nest, perforce, to find food.

2. When we do go out into the world from our place, we must carry the teachings – the ethics – with us. As it is said, “in your home and on your way”.

3. We also “go out” from our place in other ways: to truly live in the world, we are sometimes forced to leave our “comfort zone”, whether that be a comfortable assumption about the world, a friend or family member, or the story we are telling ourselves about our place in reality. 

I knew a Rabbi once who said that after twenty years of work with a particular congregation, “I finally had them where I wanted them. But then things kept right on changing!” As long as we live, we don’t get to choose whether we are going to “go out” from the comfortable assumptions and arrangements we have made – change does happen. Our only choice is to decide how we will greet the changes in our lives, how we will “go out” from our places.

As Jews we are expected to use our power to choose to maintain a certain ethic in the world, no matter where we find ourselves or what happens to us. The only sure support we have in a changing world is Torah. Keep studying, and keep seeking understanding – it’s very different from gathering facts!

Let these words from near the end of the parashah help you consider just how much more there is to discover in your understanding. The following verses are the basis for much Jewish business ethics, but there is one more teaching hidden within them:


לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּכִיסְךָ, אֶבֶן וָאָבֶן:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small.

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּבֵיתְךָ, אֵיפָה וְאֵיפָה:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a great and a small.

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.

A perfect and just weight you must have; a perfect and just measure you must have; that your days may be long upon the land which your God gives you.

כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה:  כֹּל, עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל. 

For all that do such things, each one that does unrighteously, is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. (Devarim 25.13-16)

The basic ethic here is that you must acknowledge the correct weight (that is, value) in buying and selling – whether in your traveling “bag” (laptop?) or at home. Notice the strong words of condemnation for one who acts unethically in this way. One who cheats is an abomination – the word in Hebrew refers to one who is not righteous, but the opposite. This word is much stronger than that used for homosexuality, which is to’evah, a word that relates to a local cultural norm. 

There is so much more in a sophisticated approach to the Torah than you can know – and more support for your ethical journey than you can imagine. Don’t go out there without it.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good 5776

Shabbat Ki Tetze: There Are No Small Details

Judaism is full of lofty ideals and ethical standards, but if you only know your religion in this way you are missing out on a layer of Jewishness which is much closer to home. (No, not the “cultural Judaism” layer of eating bagels….) It’s the “what do I do right now?” layer, what we might call practical Jewish ethics – or what Rabbi Louis Jacobs called “habit forming Jewish ethics”.

Musar, a classic form of Jewish practical ethics, was created by Rabbi Israel Salantar in 19th century Lithuania “with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct” (to learn more click here). The general idea is to avoid creating Jews who keep kosher but act unethically; that is to say, they keep the halakha of practice but not of interpersonal relationships with other people and with the earth. The mitzvot of such relationship responsibility are there, but Jewish study did not focus upon them in the average Lithuanian yeshiva (perhaps assuming that some things are taught at home?).

It is still important not to assume that some things are taught at home, if only to ensure that those who do inculcate such ethics at home are reinforced in the community. This week’s parashat hashavua offers us a fascinating list of daily practical ethics. Of course, this is Torah, so it’s an ancient sense of what our daily conduct should look like, but it’s still interesting to see how many of the ethical acts indicated in parashat Ki Tetze still resonate.

Here are a few examples of what it means, in Torah-terms, to live an ethical Jewish life in every moment, taken from this parashah:

Do not lend at interest to your companion: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. (Devarim 23.20) Perhaps you have heard of the Hebrew Free Loan Association? Many of our grandparents either helped set one of these up for newcomers to the United States in the past century, or benefited from it when they arrived. There are still free Loan Societies, albeit less of them these days (these days we’re not as communally brave) but in some places you can still give – or get – a free loan from your shul. Jews know the supreme value of tzedakah in and of itself, and beyond that, we know that the wheel will come around again, and those who needed help today will likely be those giving it tomorrow. Besides, we are commanded elsewhere in Torah you must open your hand to your needy companion, and lend her whatever is needed (Devarim 15.9-10)

As a daily practice, it is important to remember that this mitzvah may also be understood emotionally; do not expect life to be fair and even. Give of your compassion and of your forgiveness to those who need it. Trust in G-d, not in the one to whom you have lent.

When you come into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat grapes until you have enough at your own pleasure; but you may not put any in your vessel. (Devarim 23.25) This is especially important at this time of year for those of us who like to walk, or bike, through areas where there are trees rich with ripe fruit. Imagine yourself walking through a row of raspberries, ripe and juicy and succulent-looking. Jewish ethics does not expect you to be super-human and forebear entirely. No one could expect you not to grab a few and pop them in your mouth, and no berry farmer can expect it either. What the farmer does have a right to expect, and what Jewish ethics reinforces, is that you are not allowed to bring a big container and fill it up with those raspberries.

All of us in a committed community make demands on each other, without realizing it. Those who do the often unseen but fundamental work are the farmers, sowing seeds of mitzvah in the field; we who benefit from that work should remember not to expect to fill up our own bag with the effort of others without remaining mindful of the cost.

When you vow a vow unto ה your G-d, do not be slack to pay it…otherwise, don’t vow. (Devarim 23.22-23) Everyone knows this, right down to our smallest children: if you make a promise, keep it. Otherwise, don’t make it.

As a daily practice, be careful what you cause others to expect of you. Don’t seem to casually offer yourself, or your attention, if you don’t mean it. If you do promise to help with that hidden but essential work, or have made some other seemingly small or casual gesture of appreciation or support, take it as seriously as if you were promising G-d – because, in a community that strives to be holy, G-d is evoked in our midst precisely when we are careful of each other, and remember our ethics in every small detail.

In the month of Elul, we are encouraged to concentrate on what really matters, and on how we are doing. Consider how a Jewish framework of practical ethics might help you see that all your deeds are really offerings, lifted up as an expression of who you are, and the impact you are having on our planet and our community.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year

Shabbat Ki Tetze: Eyes Wide Open, and Blackberries Too

Sometimes I am asked why I choose to bring the woes of the world into our awareness on Shabbat. “Rabbi, I spend all week aware of all that’s wrong in the world – on Shabbat I want to get away from it.” Would that we could so easily “turn off” the world, refresh our souls in peace, and then be ready to come back out into the world full of resolve to repair it. Would that Shabbat really could be such an oasis.


For the oasis to be complete, however, we’d have to close our eyes to a lot of what is true of our human Jewish lives, even on Shabbat. The parashat hashavua is a good example; Ki Tetze is full of specific laws meant to correct for all-too-common human sins: social, sexual, environmental, and more.


When you go out to war… (Devarim 21.10)

When a husband hates a wife…(21.15)

When a child disobeys a parent’s authority…(21.18)

If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death…(21.22)

Do not take the mother [bird] together with the young…(22.6)


In short, if you want to spend Shabbat away from the real world, you won’t be able to spend it as a Torah-learning Jew on this Shabbat.  Our Torah, and our prayers as well, are too immersed in the world – too much of the world and our place in it – to allow us to close our eyes and turn away from the world, and call it Shabbat. Not in this world; perhaps, in the World To Come.


The parashah is named, after all, Ki Tetze – “when you go out”. We all have an inner life and it must be nurtured, but one must also hold on to the outer world, for it offers us an anchor to reality, through the communities in which we find our place. Once in a while we all need a reality check from someone we trust.


Jewish spirituality is embedded in the messiness and the sinfulness of the human condition as we are, here and now. It is out of that context that we find the sparks of light to find our way. Jewish mysticism compares the presence of G-d in the world to tiny sparks of light which are hidden in klipot, in shell casings that are hard and heavy. We do not find the sparks by closing our eyes to the world of klipot, but by opening our eyes wide, bringing all our discernment to bear, and searching within the ugliness and difficulty of human life in all its pain and sorrow. 


That is because everything, even the klipot, are part of the Oneness of All that Is. You, and I, and those who go out to war, and those who hate, and those who mock, and those who are put to death, and the little bird on the ground trying to protect her nest. We cannot turn away from them and find G-d, for all of them, all of us together, are the reflection of G-d. The world is nothing more or less than that, though it seems madly contradictory. It is contradictory and confusing and complicated – but also sweet, with moments of blessing that are sweeter for their surprising presence underneath that which so often blocks them from our sight. We can have both, because we are constantly living in both. Sometimes we see through tears, and sometimes we are also capable of moments of reprieve, in which we can rest without turning away from the reality of those tears in our world.


Earth’s crammed with heaven, 

and every common bush afire with G-d, 

but only he who sees takes off his shoes. 

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries. 

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)


I wish you a barefoot Shabbat – and blackberries too.