Ki Teitzei. It’s the Torah portion with the most commandments, 74 to be exact, but the first two words say it all: if (or when) you go out. To me, it declares that the Torah is not only a book about the relationship between an individual and his or her self. It is about us and our interactions in the world around us — what we do and how we behave when we go out.
Over this summer, I had the honor and pleasure of traveling extensively in the Western United States and Canada for personal and professional reasons. I got to spend Shabbat in different communities and experienced warm, caring, friendly hospitality. As I walked into shuls hundreds of miles away, the familiar melodies and sounds enwrapped me; I felt like I was visiting long-lost relatives.
There are many things I love about Judaism and this is definitely one of the top: You can take it anywhere; it doesn’t depend on weather, location, anything. Once a week we pause; once a year, we clean the slate. We advocate for improving the world; we love an intellectual challenge, a good cause, a delicious meal. We say l’chaim and take on life. We do so wherever we go, and we go pretty far.
Ki Teitzei starts with how one behaves in war. How unusual for a “spiritual” book, a book about how we come close to God, to address us when we’re not at our best; even then, the Torah can be with us. The rabbis, of course, took it an extra step: It’s not only a physical war against outward enemies, but against the hardest enemy of all, our inner inclination — that mischievous voice that gets up before us and goes to bed after us, and derails us from being the best of who we are. And why now? Maybe because this is what Moses wanted to remind us of in his farewell speech, and maybe because just around the corner are the High Holy Days, our annual anniversary to rethink and calculate our actions.
Ki Teitzei includes other issues and mitzvot. Indeed, under the premise of “going out,” it seems like there is no area of life that this parashah doesn’t touch: what kind of cloth and clothing to wear, what to do with a bird’s nest, the need to build a railing on a high roof or balcony, laws regarding marriage and divorce laws, and more. Taking Judaism everywhere is not just about geography but about its ability to be present in all aspects of life.
There is even a mitzvah about returning lost objects, and the stories about the extraordinary steps our sages took in order to fulfill it are both fun and educational. That mitzvah ends with three superfluous words: “lo tuchal lehit’alem,” you will not be able to turn away (or hold yourself back) (Deuteronomy 22:3). It’s possible to read it as a continuation of the commandment, and therefore another instruction, emphasizing our obligation to care, to pay attention.
But it is also possible to read it as if it is saying that if we follow this way of life, we would not be able to turn away. We would grow within us a heart and mind that truly care about others, and looking out for others and even their belongings would become second nature to us.
This, to me, in the essence of our teachings. The Torah breaks it down for us in little chunks of do this and don’t do that so we can deal with the complexity of the task, but sometimes spending too much time too close to the ground makes us miss the bigger picture. Moses in his farewell wants to make sure we know of both, the minute details of the daily operation along with the grand mission, for one cannot exist without the other.
This is my farewell, too. I’ve truly had the honor and pleasure to be one of the Torah portion writers for a number of years. I invite you to continue the conversation via my blog at www.miko284.com and hope our paths cross again, on and off line. Shabbat shalom.
Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.