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R' Feldman's Derasha - Parashat Ki Teitzei (September 14, 2019)

09/17/2019 10:29:30 AM


By the Rambam’s reckoning of Mitzvot in the Torah, there are 72 Mitzvot in this week’s Parasha.  It is the most Mitzva-rich Parasha in the Torah, although there are several Parashiot which are close.  It is more than 10% of all of the Mitzvot in the Torah. 

It seems like a large number, just as 613 seems large.  But there aren’t really that many that apply today. The Chofetz Chaim at one point produced a Concise Book of Mitzvot.  He did this not because he was starting another stream of Judaism but because he wanted to raise awareness of the smaller percentage of Mitzvot which apply today.   There are in fact 77 positive commandments and 194 negative ones. And even those don’t apply all of the time -- Pesach is only one part of the year, and Shabat is only once a week.  

The remarkable fact about this week’s Parasha is that many of the 72 do in fact apply today, and they apply to all of us.  That is in fact one of the thrusts of the listing in this Parasha.

To explain: Whenever we read Ki Tetzei, the Baal Koreh has to be careful to begin in the right place.  There is a Possuk not far away which begins with the exact same line. That is because there are several sections about war before this Parasha.  They are laid out in sequence -- first to strengthen the fighting resolve of the soldiers, about suing for peace first, about not wantonly destroying anything.  The verses are in the singular but not because they are speaking to individuals. They are in the singular because they are addressed to the fighting nation as a whole.  Then there is an interruption in the narrative of war at the end of last week’s Parasha, before we resume this week.  
The first verse of this week’s Parasha is also in the singular -- when you go out to war against your enemies.  We’ve seen preparation, then battle, then the siege on a city, and now victory. But the focus quickly shifts from the fighting nation to the individual’s struggle with how to handle victory.  That shift to the individual characterizes the rest of the Parasha. In Mitzva after Mitzva of the 72, we are being addressed as individuals and not as a collective. That’s what makes this Parasha especially relevant to us.

When one prepares for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we all need a list.  And the list should include individual Mitzvot. It’s nice to dream about collective action because collective impacts are greater.  But few are given a chance to lead collective action. in the end, it’s far more relevant to most of us to think about what we can do about ourselves.  

The better we understand the list of Mitzvot, the better we can execute on them.  When learning through the Mitzvot, we have to be aware that they are often speaking at several levels.  There is a Mitzva of returning a lost object. But the Or HaChaim says that it is also a Mitzva to return a lost Jew.  There are Jews who have lost their way, and he writes that one must take them -- like one does to a lost object -- to one’s home.  One feeds them there, like the lost animals described in the Parasha. So many of us come into contact with Jews who have never seen Shabbat.  At work, at school, at the gym, we run into many Jews with little or no knowledge. Take them home.  

The Mitzva of Tzitzit also comes up in the Parasha.  There are many who find it hard to wear a Kippa in public.  Sometimes they find it too much of a public statement. We need more public statements of this kind, not fewer..  But even if a public statement is uncomfortable, what about a private statement? Tzitzit are an ideal private statement.  They don’t have to be worn with the tassels out. The Zohar says it’s better for them to be in, and not because of any danger.  It can be a private Mitzva between the individual and Hashem, and can anchor the effort to forge a closer relationship with Hashem.  [Tzitzit can be bought online via Judaica stores. I recommend because Ben has oodles of information that makes it easy to buy with confidence about what one is getting.]

As the Chagim approach, strengthening our commitment to Mitzvot begins with the list -- an individual list, which puts first a closer relationship with Hashem.

Fri, February 28 2020 3 Adar 5780