Parshat Ki Teitze

Ki Teitze contains more mitzvot (commandments or obligations) than any other parsha in the Torah. The combination and variety of the mitzvot in the parsha defy attempts to rationalize and order them. Their peculiarities, mystifying jumps in significance and moral contradictions overwhelm attempts  to systematize and reduce them to a few ethical principles and categories. For some commentators, like Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the lesson being taught is that God and Torah overwhelm neat human categories and that we shouldn’t try to stuff either into human-constructed cubbyholes.

Some of the mitzvot fall nicely into our own moral preferences. For example, there are several mitzvot that involve the humane treatment of animals. But others, like the “wayward son,” are brutal and difficult to reconcile with any society most of us would want to live in. 

Devarim 24:16

Parents should not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.

Devarim 23:3

No one misbegotten [a child of adultery] shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD.

Parents and children are not responsible for each other crimes in 24:16, yet the adultery of the parents taints the children even to the tenth generation in 23:3. Particular ethnicities — the Ammonites, Moabites, and Amalekites are affected by the sins of a previous generation.

Devarim 21:18-21

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.

The crime of the son is disobedience to his parents. There is no requirement for a trial, the parents’ word alone is sufficient for death.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

The fact that the diverse categories of mitzvot are mixed together in the Torah, and that we are unable to explain the sequence of subjects, teaches us an essential lesson: If we are to receive the Torah, the only way is to accept it as it is. We can receive the Torah only if we accept it with all its various components, because the Torah itself does not differentiate between them or see any difference between them.

In this parasha, precisely because it is replete with various subjects and themes, it is possible to delve into the Torah’s essence. There are very few other places where there is such a mixture of major and minor precepts, more important and less important, daily matters and matters that arise once in a lifetime, as in this parasha. It teaches us that in the Torah there is no such thing as more important and less important mitzvot. The totality of all the mitzvot, in all the different areas, forms a kind of definition of the Torah’s essence. There is a bridge that stretches from here to God ..

From here and other places as well, we see that the Torah’s basic structure is not built on bringing people satisfaction. There are mitzvot in which one can experience spiritual exaltation, and there are mitzvot in which one cannot.

When one tries to define and reduce the Torah to one aspect, one is left with only part of the Torah, one that is essentially deficient. Usually, the intention is to give the Torah a human face, a face that can be comprehended in its totality and entirety. However, the Torah is the work of God, and thus cannot be truly be defined in such a way; it cannot be fashioned like a human face.

Our attempt to understand everything and create a unified and complete picture is an attempt to take God, or at least Torah, and make it a simplistic plaything, and that is precisely what the Torah forbids.

And yet the Torah is Instructions. It clearly states in many places that it is a guide to life.

Rabbi Novis-Deutch criticizes the commentators that take Rabbi Steinsaltz’s perspective. He argues, instead, that the Torah is meant to challenge us, to force us to consider what we think is just. (And the rabbis of the Talmud, in fact, create so many barriers to the fulfillment of the “wayward son” that it is effectively blocked. For example, they require a jury of 23 judges who must rule unanimously. They require an active demonstration of gluttony, with warnings and lesser punishments between courses of the meal.) Is this the Torah forcing us to confront the implications of parental anger and build institutions that redirect murderous rage?

Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutch (Dean of the Schecter Rabbinic Seminary)

The easy reading of this text from a theological level is that there is a “Torah Lishma” concept: We learn Torah for the sake of learning Torah. Therefore, we have verses just for learning. [That is essentially what Rabbi Steinsaltz is arguing. It’s not a practical rule, but one for confronting the otherness of God and God’s creation.]

I want to suggest a slightly more radical version of this concept: We learn these things in order to be embarassed. In order to feel inconvenienced. It is an opportunity to read our morals and values into Torah. An opportunity to have a conversation between our values and our manners and Torah in order to create a better life and for us to behave better. Not just by fulfilling this commandment but by actually being in a discourse with it.

The rebellious son is there to remind us every day of how much effort we need to put in educating our children and ensuring we are happy with them. He reminds us that we need to provide a sustainable home that is balanced and that we are happy with our children in this household.

the Torah provides a track for mindfulness and awareness. It is not necessarily dictating right from wrong but actually to enable our right and wrong senses to develop.

As Rabbi Novis-Deutch says, his opinion is radical.

How do you confront the difficult texts of the Torah?