Parshat Ki Tetzei is a virtual cornucopia of mitzvot — with 74 of the 613 wedged in between Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19. As I mentioned above, it is quite the hodgepodge 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 ’זכר’ (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.
The first of these is 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:
- Be cautious regarding the lesion of tzara’ath, 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.
- Remember what the Lord, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt.
The second is Deuteronomy 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:
- 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].
- 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 Deuteronomy 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:
- 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
- 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 Deuteronomy 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:
- You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt,
- 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 ’זכר’ pertains to the law of tzara’at, the spiritual skin affliction that results from gossip. The second ’זכר’ 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 ’זכר’ relates to the leaving of grape harvest gleanings for strangers, orphans and widows. The fourth and final ’זכר’ is the one in which the remembering is itself the mitzvah, namely to remember how Amalek mistreated us during our trek in the dessert.
And yet there is a common denominator in that all four of these mitzvot relate to relations between human beings – the first three are מצות ביןש 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 it 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 ביןש אדם לחבירו are vastly more important than those that govern the relations between man and the Almighty – מצות ביןש 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 G-d will take care of itself. The same cannot be said for the reverse. The empirical evidence for this is ample.