J.J Gross

A random listing of laws, plus four ‘zachors’ (Ki Tetze)

This week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, is a virtual cornucopia of mitzvot — with 74 of the 613 wedged in between Devarim/ Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19.

The presentation of laws in Ki Tetze seems utterly random both in sequence and in emphasis. Laws that are rarely relevant are accorded both priority and prominence, while others that are anchors of daily life are treated almost cavalierly, stuck in nooks and crannies, sandwiched between virtual soliloquies that elaborate on uncommon situations.

Conventional wisdom would suggest — and appropriately so — that this random format is intended to indicate that it is not for us to decide on a legal hierarchy. Each commandment should be accorded the same gravitas as any other.

I would like to suggest another possible explanation for Ki Tetze’s haphazard rhythm. The Torah is telling us that life is unpredictable, indeed messy, and that we should not assume that it will unfold in an orderly manner. Yes, we can hope for consistency and prioritization. At the same time we must recognize that what seems important today can easily become marginalized by tomorrow’s circumstances. And that which appears insignificant today can acquire enormous relevance as the ground suddenly shifts beneath our feet.

Illness, war, natural disasters, economic havoc can, and will, occur without warning. And the best way to be mentally prepared is by understanding that chaos is part of the natural order. Our survival depends both on our expecting the unexpected, and our ability to shift gears and rearrange priorities as necessary.

The usage of the word ZACHOR זכור (Remember) in Ki Tetze

Indeed, Ki Tetze is quite the hodgepodge of mitzvot with little in the way of rhyme or reason in terms of order, juxtaposition or hierarchy. Nevertheless four of these mitzvot — including the last — merit the special distinction of including the word ’זכור’ (remember) or a variant thereof.

Surely this special emphasis, the requirement to remember, must indicate something important, and yet there appears to be no shared common denominator between the four.

The first of these is Devarim/ Deuteronomy 24:9

ח. הִשָּׁמֶר בְּנֶגַע הַצָּרַעַת לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד וְלַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּ אֶתְכֶם הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם תִּשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת:ט. זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמִרְיָם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם:

  1. Be cautious regarding the lesion of tzara’at, to observe meticulously and you shall according to all that the Levite priests instruct you; as I have commanded them, [so shall you] observe to do. 9. Remember what the Lord, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt.

The second is (24:18)

יז. לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר יָתוֹם וְלֹא תַחֲבֹל בֶּגֶד אַלְמָנָה:יח. וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה:

  1. You shall not pervert the judgment of a stranger or an orphan, and you shall not take a widow’s garment as collateral [for a loan]. 18. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.

The third is (24:22)

כא. כִּי תִבְצֹר כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל אַחֲרֶיךָ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה:כב. וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה:

  1. When you pick the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean after you: it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan and the widow 22. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt: therefore, I command you to do this thing.

The fourth and final is (25:17)

זי. זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם:יח. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים:

  1. You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, 18. how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.

The first ’זכור’ pertains to the law of tzara’at, the spiritual skin affliction that results from gossip. The second ’זכור’ pertains to the fair treatment of strangers, orphans and widows both in legal adjudication and the (not) taking of collateral for a widow’s loan. The third  ’זכור’ relates to the leaving of grape harvest gleanings for strangers, orphans and widows. The fourth and final ’זכור’ is the one in which the remembering is itself the mitzvah, namely to remember how Amalek mistreated us during our trek in the desert.

And yet there is indeed a common denominator in that all four of these mitzvot relate to relations between human beings — the first three are מצות בין אדם לחבירו  how we should treat (or not treat) our fellow human being. The last does not specify a particular action. It is purely a commandment to remember. What we must remember is the ultimate example of how not to treat a fellow human being. And this latter is the concluding mitzvah of the parsha, clearly the climax precisely because it is both so specific and so abstract.

From this we can infer an entire ethos of interpersonal behavior of which the first three ‘zachors’ are but illustrations. What the Torah seems to be telling us is that the mitzvot which govern our relations with others — the מצות בין אדם לחבירו  are vastly more important than those that govern the relations between man and the Almighty — מצות בין אדם למקום.  Hence if we are inclined to be particular about our observance, clearly the former take priority over the latter. Indeed, if we are meticulous (מחמיר) about how we care for others, in all likelihood the way we manage our relation with God will take care of itself. The same cannot be said for the reverse. The empirical evidence for this is ample.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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