Ki Tetze – Motivating the mitzvoth – a change of emphasis?

Author: Esther Ehrman, Elul 5767/Sept 2007

The children of Israel are preparing to enter the Land. In his long speech, Moses does not tire of repeating the need to ensure the continued observance of the commandments: It is for their well being, it will bring success to their new life, they will merit divine blessing and more. In the weekly reading of ki tetze (Deut.21,10 -25,19), we learn about an unusually large amount of commandments and many of them have a reason or a justification attached. Some of these commandments have been mentioned earlier and the reason was not necessarily there or it was a different one. In ki tetze, the focus has become the implementation of the commandments. Let us look at a few examples:

A number of laws entail the death penalty,

  1. The rebellious son. 'His father and his mother shall...bring him to the elders of his city...and they shall say: this our son is disobedient and recalcitrant; he does not listen to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard and all the people of his city shall stone him that he will die, u biarta ha ra mi kirebeicha, (and (so) you will clear the evil from your midst') (ch. 21,19-21)
  2. The bride who is accused of not being a virgin and the accusation is justified. 'then they shall bring out the girl to the gate of her father's house, and the people of her city shall stone her with stones so that she dies, because she has committed a shameful act in Israel, to commit lewdness in her father's house u biarta ha ra mi kirebeicha, (ch.22, v.21)
  3. A girl who is betrothed and is found with another man; both die. 'Then you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and stone them with stones so that they die; the girl because of evidence that she did not cry out in the city and the man because he violated his neighbour's wife, u biarta ha ra mi kirebeicha (ch.22, v.24)
  4. A man who kidnaps an Israelite.' and he has availed himself of his services and has sold him, then this thief shall die u biarta ha ra mi kirebeicha (ch. 24, v.7)

The key phrase, you shall clear the evil from your midst, is striking because it was not used in connections with these laws before. We had, in mishpatim, the first and the third case 'one who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death and one who steals a man and sells him shall be put to death' (Exodus ch.21, v.15,16). Crimes such as these are not perhaps among those that obviously incur the death penalty. But if they are not eradicated, then respect for authority (case 1), sexual legitimacy (2,3) and respect of persons (4) cannot be ensured. And that has now, in ki tetzei, become of immediate importance.

Another group of commandments is here referred to as to'evat H elokeicha, (an abomination to the Lord your G-d), a very forceful rejection.

  1. A man wearing the garments of a woman and a woman wearing the garments of a man (, v.5).
  2. Giving the price of a harlot or a dog as a pledge to the House of the Lord (ch.23, v.29).
  3. A person having dishonest weights and measures (ch.25, v.13-16).

We are familiar with 'the abominations of Egypt' and with the use of the term in connection with forbidden sexual relations, such as homosexuality (Lev. ch 18, v.22), ...'for the people of the land who went before you did all these abominations and thus the land became defiled...therefore keep that which has been given by Me to you, so that none of the abominable statutes that were practised before you will be done...I am the Lord your G-d. (ch.18, v.27,30).

Surprising, perhaps, is inclusion here of the person with dishonest weights and measures. In Leviticus, ch.19, v.35,36, the stress was on the sanctity of the Israelites. 'Do no wrong in judgment - in measures of length, of weight and of volume. You shall have just scales, just weights, a just ephah and a just hin, I am the Lord your G-d...'. The context is the overall statement 'You shall be holy because I, the Lord your G-d am holy' (ch 19.v,2). That might sound like an ideal. In ki tetze, the association of this wrong with the practices of idol worship and sexual perversions is likely to induce a strong abhorrence.

By no means are all the commandments in ki tetze linked to the notion of deterrents. Indeed, the same injunction is sometimes given an additional positive reward for the person who observes it. The same commandment of fair measures ensures long life on the land, if it is observed (Deut ch.28, v.15). A person should not take interest from his brother, 'so that the Lord your G-d may bless you in everything to which you may put your hand in the land to which you are coming to possess it' (ch.23, v.21). Likewise, we are enjoined to leave something of the harvest for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow 'so that the Lord your G-d may bless you in all the work of you hands' (ch.24, v.19). Acts of goodness are rewarded with blessings. The children of Israel need to be aware of the consequences of their deeds here, where earlier they were being instructed in the commandments as part of the covenant between them and the Almighty. This is confirmed at the end of the next weekly section, ki tavo, 'the Lord has not given you a heart to know and eyes to see and ears to hear until this day (ch.29, v.5) ...observe, therefore, the words of the commandments and do them, so that you may practice intelligently everything you do' (v.8 transl. S.R.Hirsch).