Parashat Ki Tetze: The responsibility to respect all life


When a nation goes to war against its enemies, it is not unusual for soldiers, who are usually very young and unable to participate in the normal social activities of youth, to come upon women in the time of battle and to view them as objects subject to the soldiers’ whims and urges. The Torah seems to recognize this and to channel that energy in such as manner as to respect the humanity of the women in these situations. Consequently, a soldier who desires a captive woman must allow her to mourn her family and her loss of status and must cut her hair and pare her nails, so that she is not as attractive to him as before. If, after a month’s time, he is still attracted to her and is desirous of marrying her, then he may. If not, she is to be set free and not to be sold into slavery or servitude.

This respect for one created in God’s image extends to others as well. Workers, servants and slaves are to be treated with dignity. If they are to be paid, then the pay must come immediately upon completion of the day’s work. They are not to be put off. If they owe money to the employer or to someone else, then their clothes, their blankets, their necessities may not be held as collateral. As part of the respect due to another human being, businesspeople are required to utilize fair weights and measures in the commercial enterprises. Customers should not be cheated or favored. If property is lost, it must be returned to the owner. “Finders-keepers” is a child’s rule, not the Torah’s. Respect for individuals demands that their property be returned to them promptly.

Animals, too, deserve respect. If one is going to take the eggs or young of a bird as food, the mother must be allowed to fly away before taking them, as she may not be taken along with them. This adds a measure of compassion for her feelings as a mother and a protection for the species so that it will continue to be able to reproduce. One may not yoke an ox and a donkey together, for it is not fair to the smaller animal to have to work with the larger and stronger one. Similarly, it is forbidden to muzzle a work animal when it is employed in the processing of grain, for that is its food, too. It would be cruel to have the animal work surrounded by food and not be able to eat any of it. And a pack animal, even if it belongs to one’s enemy, if it collapses under the weight of its burden or due to exhaustion, must be helped up, so that it does not continue to suffer.

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All of these examples and more that are found in this week’s sedra demonstrate the Torah’s concern for the abuse of power over those who are dependent, whether they be from the animal kingdom or from among our fellow human beings. Just because one has the power does not mean that one has to exercise it. Those in power need to utilize that power in a responsible, humane and compassionate manner. The Torah forbids the exploitation of others. The treatment of animals in a society is an indication of the treatment of people, too. If animals are treated humanely, so, too, will human beings. If the converse is true, then human beings will also find that society unwelcoming, exploitive and dehumanizing.

Those who have status, who possess native intelligence, who have amassed great fortunes, who are strong, who identify with those in power, do not have special rights to exploit, abuse and use other people or other creatures. In fact, they have the added responsibility to utilize their power in such a way as to improve the lot of all, even those who are powerless and dependent. To do any less than that would be inhumane.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona, and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.