Book of Deuteronomy’s message for this week: ‘Pay attention’

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

We are nearing the final chapters in the Book of Deuteronomy.  This year, Deuteronomy feels a bit like a Jewish insurance policy.   Moses, the agent, is renewing the policy, reminding us how we got here, before Whom we stand, what the operations manual includes, and assessing the premiums for group and individual rates.  This week, his memo includes a special directive to pay attention.

The conventional translation for the first word Ki of Ki-Tetze is when or if.  It can also mean in-case, which does imply a kind of contingency situation.  Ki-Tetze can be translated as — when you go forth or in case you leave the comforts of home to engage in strife-filled matters..  Either way, the text is instructing us to pay close attention to the 74 mitzvot included this week.  That is a long list and, interestingly, when looking at the actual Torah text, the items on the list are separated by stretches of empty parchment.  It’s as though the text itself is underscoring the need to park for a bit and absorb some teaching.     

I see those parking zones as timeless invitations reminding us that when we’re pushing forward with an agenda we might lose our connection to the Torah flowing through us.  Ki-Tetze, in case you leave the safe- space you have occupied your whole life, you might need some ground rules that help you govern your relationships with nature, your responsibilities to opponents, and your baser, human proclivities when temptation surfaces.  

On the surface, the biblical instructions of Ki-Tetze don’t seem all that relevant to our own time.  Instructions about mother birds and their eggs, female captives, a dangerous precipice, and suffering beasts of burden — regardless of ownership don’t appear to fit the context of our lives.  There is, however, an interior aspect to all Torah and here we find the beautiful Torah of compassion, restraint, collaboration, and respect.

Ki-Tetze is a grand set up to keep up with your insurance premiums.  With regard to the mother bird, the text invites us to see ourselves in her plight.  The Torah of Compassion is about being openhearted to the suffering of others and to the pain we might inadvertently inflict.  The Torah of Restraint is the strength we draw on in order to overcome strong emotions, particularly when they are so easily aroused.  The Torah of Collaboration demands that we be less self-centered that we might work toward a common goal.  The Torah of Respect is the effort-ful and mindful care we have for all of creation.  Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch z”l summarized this when he wrote: Every creature should be reflected in your soul.  Your heart should resonate with every cry of distress and with every shout of glee.  Your heart should rejoice when buds appear and you should mourn when flowers wilt…for this world is on loan and you will one day be asked to testify before the Throne of Glory and answer whether you ignored all of this or used them for a blessing or curse.   

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Ki-Tetze is read several weeks prior to the Jewish New Year, the celebration of all creation. The spiritual well-being we all experience is dependent upon the care we take in traveling through life.  Ki-Tetze — as you leave the past year behind, may all your efforts bring you to a deeper love of all life and a path toward greater peace.