Parashat Ki Tetzei contains 74 commandments, more mitzvot than in any other sidra in Torah. Reading through the list, one first notices just how random and unrelated they appear to be, but on closer reading one sees patterns and trajectories, and notices how much daily living they give guidance about, drumming into us the values and the moral code of the Jewish peoples.
The list of mitzvot covers a wide variety of topics, from the behaviour of soldiers in wartime, through to the complexities of family life; They expect good behaviour in our relationships with others, respect for property and animals, the safety of others; Abuses of power in sexual relationships are covered, also power over escaped slaves, proper behaviour if giving loans or charging interest, timely payment of workers, the importance of keeping promises, and the passage concludes with the importance of remembering to blot out the name of one of Israel's greatest enemies - Amalek.
This extraordinary sidra, packed with injunctions as to how to behave, begins with the words: “Ki Tetzei lemilchama al oyvecha – when (or if) you go out to war against your enemies..” While it is certainly a command to the whole nation of Israel, the fact that the verb used is in the singular, allows commentators to frame the reading differently, and, taking note of the fact that this sidra is always read early in the month of Elul, suggest that the verse is referring to the continuous battle each individual engages in, fighting our own yetzer ha’ra – evil inclinations. Thus the verse becomes one of comfort almost – God will help us to take control of our own bad habits and selfish desires.
How would we do that? Well that is where the rest of the list of mitzvot comes in.
For example, the sidra begins with a soldier taking captive a beautiful woman, allowing her to mourn her past life and then potentially taking her as a wife. But soon it moves onto the problems between two wives of the same man, and the difficulties of fairness in a polygamous marriage, and very shortly after that the sidra discusses the problem of what to do with the stubborn and rebellious child. Are these mitzvot really so random as they first appear? Are they really only arranged in a sort of “family relationships” category? or are they connected at a deeper level? Is Torah using this arrangement of verses to create an understanding in us that everything we do can impact on what already is in our worlds, and on what may yet become of our lives?
So how do we engage in fighting our most selfish desires? A plain reading of the text would be that we do so simply by fulfilling the mitzvot as enumerated here, but something else is being transmitted as well - By understanding what the fulfilment of our immediate selfish inclinations may bring about in our own contexts we may learn to temper them and find some better control of the self. So not just behaviour is being demanded of us without our thought or engagement, but the reasoning for WHY such behaviour is necessary is being required of us too.
Understanding a particular behaviour has never changed it – that is one of the limitations of many a modern therapy. We may know that smoking kills, but that will usually not change the behaviour of the smoker. And yet, behaving without understanding, just following the rules - can lead to us becoming automatons, doing whatever we are told to do by whoever we give such authority over us– magazine writers, fashion leaders, work bosses, company rules, even rabbis.
We may choose to follow rules and expectations or not, but each of us is responsible for the choices we make. And to begin to see our actions in a context that can seriously impact upon others is no bad thing as we follow our own inclinations in our lives.
Add to that the second half of the verse – that God helps us to prevail over our enemy/inclinations and a lesson comes into sharp focus. We may think that what we do is only the business of ourselves, but we exist in a context and a setting that includes others and that includes the seeds of our own future selves. The choices we make have power and can bring about a great deal of difference for us and for those around us. We make them best when we consider that we are not alone either in the choices or in their results.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild