Parshat Ki Tetzei
The Torah describes the only permissible way a woman captured in battle may be married. If a man marries two wives, and the less-favored wife bears a firstborn son, this son's right to inherit a double portion is protected against the father's desire to favor the child of the favored wife. The penalty for a rebellious son, who will inevitably degenerate into a monstrous criminal, is stoning. A body must not be left on the gallows overnight, because it had housed a holy soul. Lost property must be returned. Men are forbidden from wearing women's clothing and vice versa. A mother bird may not be taken together with her eggs. A fence must be built around the roof of a house. It is forbidden to plant a mixture of seeds, to plow with an ox and a donkey together, or to combine wool and linen in a garment. A four-cornered garment must have twisted threads tzitzit on its corners. Laws regarding illicit relationships are detailed. When Israel goes to war, the camp must be governed by rules of spiritual purity. An escaped slave must not be returned to his master.
Taking interest for lending to a Jew is forbidden. Bnei Yisrael are not to make vows. A worker may eat of the fruit he is harvesting. Divorce and marriage are legislated. For the first year of marriage, a husband is exempt from the army and stays home to make rejoice with his wife. Tools of labor may not be impounded, as this prevents the debtor from earning a living. The penalty for kidnapping for profit is death. Removal of the signs of the disease tzara'at is forbidden. Even for an overdue loan, the creditor must return the collateral daily if the debtor needs it. Workers' pay must not be delayed. The guilty may not be subjugated by punishing an innocent relative. Because of their vulnerability, converts and orphans have special rights of protection. The poor are to have a portion of the harvest. A court may impose lashes. An ox must not be muzzled while threshing. It is amitzvah for a man to marry his brother's widow if the deceased left no offspring. Weights and measures must be accurate and used honestly. The parsha concludes with the mitzvah to erase the name of Amalek, for, in spite of knowing about the Exodus, they ambushed the Jewish People.
The Unchained Tongue
“Remember what the L-rd, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt” (24:9)
When Miriam criticized her brother Moshe unfairly, G-d punished her with tzara’at,a serious leprous-like skin affliction that covered her body.
The Torah, for some reason, connects Miriam’s punishment with leaving Egypt. What does one thing have to do with the other?
The captivity of the Jewish People in Egypt was more than physical bondage. On a deeper level Egypt represented the enslavement of the power of speech. Egypt not only enslaved the bodies of the Jewish People, but it put in chains the major weapon of the Jewish People – speech. Thus, the Torah writes that the Jewish People “cried out” to G-d. It never writes that they “prayed.” For in Egypt, speech itself was bound.
The Exodus from Egypt was the beginning of the rebuilding of the power of speech.
Man’s pre-eminence derives from his power of speech. He has the ability to direct himself according to his will. When the Jewish People left Egypt, they went straight into the desert. In Hebrew, the word desert is midbar which is from the root “mi dibur”– “from speech” – because the desert is the place that is separated and removed from speech. Since the desert is the maximum place of non-speech, of non-direction, it is the ideal place to rebuild the power of speech from the ground up.
When the Jewish People left Egypt they were like a newborn baby. When a child begins to speak, his father is obligated to start to teach him Torah. In this formative stage, then, it was essential that the Jewish People should guard their mouths and their tongues with great care. Something is most vulnerable during its construction. To protect the reconstruction of speech, they were given Torah, and to protect their mouths, they were given the manna.
The gravity of Miriam’s error was not just what she did, but when she did it. To use the power of speech incorrectly at the time of its reconstruction required a serious punishment. Thus, the Torah connects her mistake with the leaving of Egypt.
It is Miriam’s eternal privilege though that every generation has a positive commandment to remember what G-d did to her, to teach us that death and life are in the power of the tongue.
- Sources: Sfat Emet, Ramban