This week’s Parsha, Parshat Ki-Tetze, is one of the most fascinating in its content. It contains a host of laws ranging from regulation of how we must treat beautiful female prisoners of war, laws pertaining to rape, being a Good Samaritan, human trafficking, and a whole range of social laws designed to ensure the poor and destitute are always taken care of. There are laws regarding hygiene of where and how we go to the toilet in a camp setting, prohibition against returning a fugitive slave to its owner, and laws governing divorce. There are laws about just business dealings, and laws regarding the physical and psychological welfare of animals and birds. If we spent the entire next year focussed on this Parsha we would still not have enough time to exhaust its trove of treasures. Nonetheless, there is one lesson in particular, that the compilation of all the laws combined do teach us, that I’d like to focus on today. The lesson is that ‘interpretation is everything’.
Consider the following laws that are included in this week’s Parsha:
1. If a man has a defiant son who doesn’t listen to his parents, they must bring him to the elders of the community who upon being told of his insubordination as well as his gluttony and drinking habits, stone him to death.
2. In a situation where a man marries a woman, sleeps with her and then takes an aversion to her and makes up charges that she was not a virgin. If the woman’s parents prove her virginity then the husband is flogged. If not, the woman is stoned to death.
3. If a man rapes a young virgin who is not engaged or married, the rapist shall pay 50 shekels of silver to the victim’s father and the victim shall be her rapists’ wife.
4. No one whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of God.
5. If two men get into a fight and the wife of one comes to save her husband by seizing the genitals of his antagonist, you shall cut off her hand.
Without any explanation these laws can boggle the mind. Take the first law for instance. If we were to apply this law literally the Jewish nation would never have made it beyond the generation that came out of Egypt. After all, is teenage experience not synonymous with rebelliousness? If we were to stone every ‘defiant’, insubordinate, gluttonous teenager to death there would be hardly any left. This is perhaps why the rabbis explained that this law is not to be acted upon literally. In fact, the rabbis ensured that the criteria for this law would be impossible to fulfil which is why there never was, nor ever will be, such a case in practice.
The question may well be asked as to what then is the point of such a law? Perhaps it is the instruction to encourage the elders of the community to be involved in the education of children. As the saying goes, it takes a village to bring up a child. Or it could be a comforting tool for exasperated parents who feel like strangling their teenagers. Know ye parents, you are not alone in this sentiment. Or it could be any of a number of other ideas.
Similarly, without interpretation many of the other laws in this Parsha don’t appear to make sense to us. How could a rapist of a young girl be forced to marry her without ability to divorce? How is it justice that he pay money to the father as punishment? It is only when we understand that in that time, the fate of young rape victims was very often death at the hands of their own families for having brought shame on them, we can start to understand the wisdom of this law.
A question may then be asked then as to what the interpretation for the 5th law mentioned above? Would we really cut off the hands of a woman who grabbed the genitals of a person who was trying to cause grievous harm to her husband? The rabbis, in their wisdom, explained that the Torah is referring to monetary compensation despite the fact that the Torah explicitly states ‘you shall cut off her hand; show no pity!
The lesson that ‘interpretation is everything’ is made most explicit in a fascinating story in the Talmud. There is a law in this week’s Parsha that states when you come across a bird’s nest and you are going to collect the eggs, you must first shoo the mother bird away. Uncharacteristically the Torah states that if you do so you will be be granted a long life.
The Talmud records a story which is often used to explain how and why one of the greatest rabbis of all time renounced his Judaism and became a heretic. The name of the rabbi in question was Elisha ben Abuya. In the Talmud he is mostly referred to as Acher, meaning the Other. To put him into context, this rabbi was the teacher of Rabbi Meir who is the author of more laws in the Mishna than anyone else. In fact, there is a basic principle that if a law is not mentioned in the name of anyone specific we assume that its author is Rabbi Meir. So the teacher of the most prolific author of laws in the Mishna, the seminal work of the Oral Law, the foundation and source of Halacha, was Elisha ben Abuya. And just in case you think that Rabbi Meir outgrew his teacher at any point, the Mishna tells us that Rabbi Meir continued to learn from his teacher even as the latter was desecrating the Shabbat!
To explain how Acher went off track the Talmud tells us the following story. He was sitting and people-watching whereupon he heard a mother ask her child to climb to the roof to collect the eggs from a nest there. The child dutifully complies and Acher sits watching as the child shoos the mother bird away, collects the eggs, climbs down the ladder, slips, falls, and breaks his neck and dies. Upon seeing this Acher lost faith. He argued, the reward for almost all the laws in the Torah are not articulated. Two that stand out are the laws of honouring one’s parents, and shooing mother bird away where the Torah specifically mentions the reward of long life. Yet here was a young child fulfilling both these Mitzvot and still died while performing them!
The Talmud concludes the story by asking, what was wrong with the seemingly compelling argument he made? His mistake was that he thought the reward of long life promised in the Torah was meant to be taken literally.
If ever there was an example of ‘interpretation is everything’ it is in this story. Moreover, it has the added lesson that it is the holding on to the literal interpretation, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, which is a real source of strife.
In our world of violent religious extremism this is a lesson worth learning. The problem is not Islam as some would suggest any more than the other religions. The problem is with holding onto a fundamentalist (i.e. literalist) interpretation of Islam which leads to atrocities.
Even more relevant to our community though is the opposite trend. The problem facing the Jewish community en masse is that much of our youth seem to feel there is little relevance in the religion to them today. The solution, as the Talmud clearly explains, must be in the interpretation. In other words, the solution for stemming the tide of religious apathy is likely not to be more proclamations of the same old messages that this generation of young people struggle to connect with but rather a sincere, honest, halachically sound interpretation that inspires and engages. And if this story of Acher does not convince us that the idea that ‘interpretation is everything’ is not only consistent with authentic Judaism but actually mandated by it, I’m not sure what will.
May God grant us the serenity to accept the things which truly cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.