Stoning of the rebellious child.
Holy One of Blessing! Help us understand why this text is in your Torah.
You created human beings to be lifelong learners. To keep us learning, you fill our lives with problems. To guide us through challenge, you send us challenging words.
Like this passage in Deuteronomy:
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 (Deut. 21:18-21, Parshat Ki Tetze).
All your learned commentators agree. This is a bad way to deal with a problem child. You do not actually want us to label, shame, or execute teens. Your people do not want to do this. And they never have.
What are you teaching us through your parable of the rebellious child?
Perhaps you are teaching us about language. We should not describe ourselves, our problems, or our antagonists with vague inflammatory words. Instead, let’s clearly identify our expectations.
Maybe you are reminding us to seek support. Some problems are too big for one person to solve. Turn to partners, elders, communities. Before the problem gets out of hand.
Possibly you are calling us to pay attention. All Israel will hear and be afraid — so says the translator. But the Hebrew word “fear” is close to the word “see.” Most likely you mean all Israel should hear and see. Listen deeply. Look with fresh eyes. Reframe the situation.
Holy One, you know our hearts. You know the challenges we face. Life is confusing. More puzzling than the parable of the rebellious child.
Help us find the guideposts. See the positive. Learn from you. Amen.
Education for Freedom (5776/2016)
Exodus: the paradigm story in all Jewish thought.
Because God spared our firstborn children, we should celebrate the Passover holiday (Ex. 12).
Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we should not oppress the foreigner (Ex. 22).
Because God took us out of Egypt, we should show gratitude to God, offering the first fruits of our land to the Temple (Deut. 26).
Because we were slaves in Egypt, we should observe Shabbat; employers should give employees the day off (Deut. 5).
And — from Parshat Ki Tetze — because we were slaves in the land of Egypt, landowners among us should leave fruit and grain for the hungry to harvest (Deut. 24).
These practices simply make sense, given the Exodus story. They remind us: life is risky. We survive because God spares us, shows us compassion, releases us from labour, and feeds us. But why keep things simple? In traditional Jewish thought, the metaphorical mindset adds layers of complexity.
Grain, it turns out, is a popular metaphor for the study of Torah. Not just reading the text, God forbid – that would be like eating raw kernels of wheat. But analyzing it, relating it to modern life, connecting it with other ideas, getting new insight, and acting differently. Or, metaphorically speaking, milling the grain, sifting the flour, combining it with other ingredients, letting it rise, and baking it into treats.
In light of this metaphor, Parshat Ki Tetze teaches: Because we were slaves in Egypt, those among us who have knowledge should share it with all who seek it. Why? Because education is empowerment. Knowing history, taking pride in our culture, developing empathy, and seeing through propaganda help us avoid deception and enslavement. How have you used your freedom today to learn and to teach?
Raising the Donkey (5773/2013)
When you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him (Shemot/Exodus 23:5)
When you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it (Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:24)
Two variations on the same law; the first features two enemies and the second features two friends. How does an enemy become a friend? And what does a donkey have to do with it? Midrash answers:
R. Alexandri said: Two donkey-drivers who were walking by the way hated each other. One of their donkeys sat down. His companion saw it, and passed on. When he had passed, he thought: It is written in the Torah, “If you see the donkey of one who hates you…you shall surely help him to lift it up.” Immediately he returned and loaded with him. He [the former] began to say to himself: So-and-so is thus my friend and I did not know. Both entered an inn and ate and drank. (Bereisheet Rabbah 38:3)
When your enemy sees that you came and you helped him, he will say to himself, “I thought that he is my enemy. God forbid! If he were my enemy he would not have helped me, but if he is my friend, then I am his enemy in vain. I will go and pacify him.” He went to him and made peace. Hence the saying about Torah, “All her pathways are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). (Exodus Rabbah, 30:1)
Careful Hearing (5772/2012)
Towards the end of the Biblical book named after him, Job has a direct encounter with God. All of his questions fade away, and he says: “In the past, I heard about You with my ears; but now I see you with my eyes” (42:5).
Years ago, I had heard from one relative that some others did not value family relationships, and that these flawed values led to unethical behavior. This old report colored every subsequent thing I heard about these relatives. In every story, I imagined their questionable motives. But just a few weeks ago, I saw these “questionable” people in action. They went to extraordinary lengths to stay connected with us during our own time of mourning. In the past I had only heard the subjective reports of others; now I have seen with my own eyes.
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) says that one person’s habit of speaking lashon hara affects not only how they speak, but also how others hear. Confession: I am not always careful when I hear emotionally charged reports. Instead of recognizing them as the by-product of negative interactions in need of healing, I sometimes accept them as facts. Alternatively, I should sympathize, decide whether it is appropriate to inquire into the details, and encourage the speaker to reach out towards healing.
Parshat Ki Tetze says: motza sefatecha tishmor – be careful with speech. (23:34) Paired with that should be the instruction, “be careful with your hearing.” When you recognize the inner processes behind your own damaging reports, you can free your speech from negativity. At the same time, you come to understand others, and free your hearing from prejudice.
How Can I Atone? (2010/5770)
Parshat Ki Tetzei is a mini-encyclopedia of moral, ethical, and social teachings. We read Ki Tetzei only a few short weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a time of reflection, repentance, and resolutions. At this time of year, many readers of Ki Tetzei ask, “What would happen if I failed to put these teachings into practice? How might I make up for the harm done?”
In answer, some of our sages point to the Biblical story of King David. David, who already has seven wives, has a short, passionate affair with Batsheva. Batsheva becomes pregnant, David panics, and orders Batsheva’s husband into a battle where he will certainly be killed. The prophet Natan confronts David, and David becomes horrified by his own actions. David fasts and prays, begging God to punish him – not the nation, Batsheva, or the child. Over time, David is reborn as the loving partner of one wife, Batsheva, who becomes his political confidante and the mother of all his future children.
The poet Jacob Glatstein imagines David, reflecting at the end of his life, and wishing for a deeper absolution. David considers the psalms he has written, and does not find them good enough to balance the harm he has done. Yet he goes on looking for songs “steeped in truth.”
King David offers a model of repentance: we can listen to the perspectives of friends and advisors, recognize the consequences of thoughtless actions, practice rituals that awaken our inner spirit, explore ourselves through art, learn to behave differently, and continue to pursue the path towards true and right action.
Inspired by Rabbi Jill Hammer
Why mitzvot? (5766/2006)
According to 10th century philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Parshat Ki Tetze contains 72 of the 613 mitzvot (divine commandments) found in the Torah. While the specifics of these 72 mitzvot are reinterpreted over time, their basic teachings endure: compassion towards animals, respect for property, restrained conduct of war, safe construction of houses, and more.
Why act in accordance with mitzvot? Ancient Rabbinic commentaries offer two radically different opinions. According to the Midrash Rabbah, we human beings struggle our way through life, drowning in the seas of our selfish passions. Mitzvot are like a life raft, instructions for sailing through life on an even keel. But according to Devarim Rabbah, human life is essentially a peaceful routine of earning a living, building a shelter, creating a community. Mitzvot are like angels that lift us up on shining wings, elevating our ordinary activities into acts of divine service.
Maimonides himself takes a middle ground between these two extremes. Mitzvot, he says, are a developmental plan for inner growth. He agrees with the Midrash Rabbah that we human beings do not always know how to manage our inner lives. When we begin to practice mitzvot, we learn inner guidelines. The more we practice, the more we become transformed into people who live thoughtful, even-keeled lives. When we live thoughtfully, under the guidance of our higher selves, even our ordinary acts are acts of divine service. Thus, Maimonides also agrees with Devarim Rabbah – mitzvot can make us shine.
Why Save a Bird? (5765/2005)
“If you chance upon a bird’s nest, do not take the mother together with the young. Let the mother go, in order that you may have a long life.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
Talmud (Berachot 33b) teaches that we should not try to understand the reason for this commandment. Mitzvot are not expressions of human values, but come from a higher source. Not surprisingly, some of our greatest scholars ignored the Talmud’s advice.
A story is told that Elisha Ben Abuyah, a teacher of some of the greatest Talmudic sages, saw a child perform this mitzvah and still die young. Shattered by this failure of justice, Elisha Ben Abuyah became an atheist.
Maimonides (Rambam) said that this commandment expresses God’s nature in a way we can understand and emulate. Biologically, animals care about their offspring. No mother bird wants to see her children stolen. God has compassion for non-human life and insists that we share it.
Nachmanides (Ramban) thought this commandment spoke specifically to the human need for ethical values. Though we must kill to eat, we should always limit our cruelty. And although we are permitted to eat a single animal, we must not wipe out a species.
None of these teachings is complete or perfect. But each offers an important principle for the self-reflective month of Ellul. Recognize that our own understanding is limited. Ask questions. Demand justice. Be aware that the entire world is alive. Increase compassion. Protect other species. Monitor our own ethical growth.