Parshat Ki Tetze: Practicing Compassion

Parshat Ki Tetze contains many mitzvot. One in particular relates to a central theme during Elul and Rosh Hashanah: fostering and praying for mercy and compassion.

What is the purpose of the mitzvah of “shiluach ha-ken,” to send away the mother bird before taking her young or her eggs? The mishna Berachot teaches that one may not add to tefilla the statement: Be merciful with us as “Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest.” One explanation in the gemara of this ambiguous statement is that it is best not to attach reasons to mitzvot. Still, many biblical commentaries see a deep connection between shiluach ha-ken and the trait of compassion.

Rambam, in Guide to the Perplexed, explains that if the Torah warns against causing such grief to birds, how much more careful should we be not to cause grief to people. The Ha’amek Davar highlights the bravery of the mother bird, who’s intuition is to stay and protect her children – an image of compassion par excellence. The word “rachamim” (mercy) is also related to the word “rechem” (womb), symbolic of the compassion a mother feels toward her child. Perhaps for this reason mothers – Sarah, Hagar, Hannah – feature prominently in Rosh Hashanah liturgy, when we pray fervently for God’s compassion.

The shofar which is blown throughout Elul, in the run up to Rosh Hashana, is also associated with rachamim. According to the midrash, God called Moshe to go back up Mount Sinai a second time on Rosh Chodesh Elul. The shofar was blown then to awaken the people to repentance and in prayer for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

By emulating the compassion God has for us in this world – be it toward others or with ourselves – we merit the words of the Talmud, “anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures will receive compassion from Heaven.” Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

*Photo excerpt from “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman

Healthy Sexuality

Parshat Ki Tetze opens with a disturbing law: when a Jewish man goes to war and desires a foreign woman among the captives, he may take her home on the condition that he waits one month during which her beauty is neglected and must then marry or free her. When seen in its biblical milieu and through the eyes of the midrashic rabbis, this law teaches us a lesson about healthy approaches to sexuality and the necessity of consent, and is particularly relevant for Israeli society this week.

The Torah emphasizes the soldier’s physical desire: He takes her based solely on her physical appearance: he “sees” her, “desires” her. She is known as “eshet yefat to’ar,” a beautiful woman. The woman has no voice or choice. The Torah’s concession to human weakness in allowing this woman to be taken would be unthinkable today and would be deemed a war crime. However, in the context of antiquity, the idea of putting constraints on victorious soldiers was revolutionary and significantly limited wartime rape. The midrash further discourages this behavior. Noting the incongruous placement of this law next to a law regarding polygamy and then the rebelious son (ben sorer u-moreh), the midrash teaches, “one sin leads to another sin.” Meaning, taking the eshet yefat to’ar into one’s house will cause conflict and a catastrophic breakdown of family relationships. It might be permitted, but it is toxic for everyone involved.

The Torah and the midrash were beacons of morality in a world where a female captive had no rights, which thank G-d is no longer the case. They remind us that sexual relations without consent has disastrous effects, and healthy sexuality goes beyond mere physical attraction.