May 30, 2024
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It is something of a puzzle that although parshat Shoftim precedes parshat Ki Teitzei, the opening words of Ki Teitzei appear in parshat Shoftim. In the middle of the sixth alyiah of Shoftim (20:1) there appear the phrase words: “כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֨א לַמִּלְחָמָ֜ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֗יךָ” The verses that follow concern procedures for going to war. Why have it here and not in the following parsha? Other portions of parshat Shoftim also seem, at first blush, out of place.

Most of the parsha’s organization can be easily understood. After the first four pesukim of the parsha, concerning the appointment of judges and officers, the Torah warns against improper ways of worshiping Hashem. This leads to a discussion of the appropriate means of resolving Halachic matters. Following this is the discussion of appointing a king, who must himself be subservient to Halacha. The discussion of the secular state is immediately followed by relating certain theological aspects of the state, for a Jewish state is always to be bound and contained within and regulated by Halacha.

The cities of refuge are the next topic addressed. Those cities are more connected to the state’s spiritual dimension than the secular dimension. This can be seen even in how long the period of time that an accidental killer must remain in a city of refuge is decided. It is not by some set time frame, but by the lifespan of the Kohein Gadol. The parsha then relates the eglah arufa ceremony which is performed upon discovery of a murder whose perpetrator is unknown. Thus, we have a contrast between an accidental killing and a deliberate murder. Responsibility for the latter loss of life is placed upon the elders of the closest city who may have failed to properly educate the populace on the need to look after a stranger.

What does not fit, or rather seems not to fit, is placing procedures for going to war between passages about cities of refuge and eglah arufa. These procedures include exempting certain individuals from battle; besieging a city; suing for peace; and the famous prohibition of destroying fruit trees. Why should this be placed in parshat Shoftim and not the following parsha, Ki Teitzei? Why are the laws of war found in parshat Shoftim segregated from the laws found parshat ha Ki Teitzei?

Parshat Shoftim and parshat Ki Teitzei reflect two very different worlds. Parshat Ki Teitzei contains laws intended to confine and control a violent world. The very opening of that parsha deals with the situation of an attractive female enemy captive. The classic commentaries tell us that the Torah’s permission to take a non-Jewish woman captured in war was a concession to the yetzer hara. It is permitted, but not encouraged. What follows in the parsha are other similarly dismal situations including the hated wife, the stubborn and rebellious son, laws of divorce, laws concerning rape and laws against predatory and oppressive lending practices. The parsha culminates with the requirement to remember and obliterate Amalek, the nation which believed that the universe’s Creator no longer involved Himself in the world and that all occurrences were simply the result of randomness and chance—a world of chaos.

The haftorah for Ki Teitzei is also informative. That haftorah is from Yeshayahu 54:1-10. It is interesting that the haftorah read for the earlier parsha of Re’eh is Yeshayahu 54:11- 55:5. Why do we read these portions of out of order? If you combine the haftorahs of Ki Teitzei and Re’eh the result is the haftorah for parshat Noach. The most obvious answer for assigning this section of Yeshayahu as the haftorah for Ki Tetizei is its reference to “a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit” (Yeshayahu 54:6) and the parsha’s reference to a hated and despised wife. A more subtle and deeper connection is the reference to the waters of Noach (Yeshayahu 54:9). Prior to the flood, the world was in a state of chaos caused by humanity’s disregard for the rule of law and consideration of their fellow man. The spiritual and ethical tumult mankind brought about then became a physical tumult brought about by the waters of Noach. The prohibitions and requirements found in Ki Teitzei conjure up the same sort of world. There is disregard for law, violence and sexual violation. This stands in sharp contrast to the world envisioned by parshat Shoftim.

Parshat Shoftim envisions and mandates and orderly world. It sets out the structures for the secular and spiritual aspects of society. It mandates a monarchy limited and guided by Torah. It instructs the people, and even the Sages themselves, to follow the teachings of the Sanhedrin. Parshat Shoftim reminds us of the need to protect the person who kills by accident while also warning us to protect visitors and travelers from injury or death. Parshat Shoftim is a parsha of compassion. It is always read just after the onset of the month of Elul. The beginning of the parsha invokes the idea of judging and the enforcements of judgments. The parsha concludes with the eglah arufa procedure which is atonement for innocent blood having been spilled.

It therefore makes perfect sense to include in parshat Shoftim wartime procedures filled with compassion. Procedures are set out allowing individuals to be excused from military service for having built a new home, planted a new vineyard, taken a new wife or are simply fearful of heart, and according to the rabbis fearful that they would be punished in war for their sins. The parsha also requires us to sue for peace before making war. Indeed, it even limits the ruinous consequences on the environment when we ultimately must make war. These requirements are most appropriately set in this parsha, that envisions a better world, than that which appears in the succeeding parsha.

It is appropriate that the parsha read at the beginning of the month of Elul, as we prepare for the day of judgment, include a passage teaching about how one who fears punishment for his sins may be excused from war. Now is the time to palpably fear the consequences of our sins and modify our acts and character. Now is the time to take steps, similar to those set out at the end of the parsha, to obtain atonement for our lapses.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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