Ki Tetzei

Dear Congregant,

Ki tetzei l’milkhamah al oyvekha… (“When you go out to war against your enemy …”) begins this week’s Torah portion (Ki Tetzei), promising, it would seem, an extended discussion of the strategies of warfare and the rules governing its conduct.  Yet, within a few verses, the text’s focus has shifted to a discussion of some of life’s most mundane circumstances: the resolution of disputes within a household or between neighbors, the return of lost property, the standards of dress and deportment in public places. 

While war is hardly the eventuality that most of us would like to contemplate, it is at least self-evidently noteworthy.  Indeed, there are whole branches of scholarship devoted to its analysis.  But family frictions and dress codes, are these really the stuff on which a major religious treatise is founded?  Yes, the Torah answers us unwaveringly, it is precisely in these utterly routine interactions with our friends and our peers (including our adversaries) that weave the moral fabric of our lives and define life’s purpose. 

The segregation of “religious” thought and law from other aspects of our existence is something that most Americans – indeed, most residents of “modern civilizations” – take for granted.  We engage in commerce and social relations, education, politics and recreational pastimes and our religious beliefs and traditions impact on these – if they do – as a matter of personal volition. 

This is not a Jewish worldview.  Rather, Judaism asserts, our religious “commitments” are rendered a mere academic dalliance if they have no impact on the decisions we make, the conduct we model in our everyday lives.  Like the process of teshuvah (the re-examination of our past conduct for the purpose of improving upon it moving forward), a discipline that we are meant to engage in with particular intensity during a specific period of time (in that case, Elul, the Hebrew month immediately preceding the High Holidays) but that is incumbent upon us throughout the year, religious introspection, the squaring of our personal deportment with our over-arching moral goals and ideals is a skill that we are meant to refine during our periods of religious study and observance, but that is meant to be an ever-present lens on our own thoughts and actions.

Indeed, in this sense, the opening lines of Parashat Ki Tetzei might even be read ironically, “Don’t wait until an extreme event, like the onset of a war, comes to revive your moral conscience.  Open your eyes; examine your conduct throughout your days.”