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 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 a mitzvah for a man to marry his brother's widow if the deceased left no offspring. Weights and measures must be accurate and used honestly. This Torah portion concludes with the mitzvah to erase the name of Amalek, for, in spite of knowing about the Exodus, they ambushed the Jewish People.
He cannot give the right of the firstborn to the son of the beloved one ahead of the son of the disliked one, the firstborn. (21:16)
One of the greatest men who came into this world was an unassuming rabbi who was born in Russia and lived most of his life in New York City. There are enough stories about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to fill many books. Here is one small story which is enormously revealing.
When a Jew finishes speaking to his Creator in the amidah, the standing prayer, he takes his leave by walking backward three paces as a servant would take his leave of a great king. If someone is standing behind you and is still praying this prayer, the halacha forbids you to back up into a space four amot (approximately two meters) in front of the person still in prayer. One day, Rabbi Feinstein had just finished praying in his Yeshiva on Staten Island, New York. As it happened, someone was still praying behind him. As he was waiting patiently for this person to conclude so that he could take three paces backward and complete his service, someone told him that there was a call from Israel, a matter of urgency but not life-threatening that demanded his attention. Rabbi Feinstein continued to wait for the fellow behind him to take three steps backward. Nothing happened, so deeply was this fellow immersed in prayer. The person who had brought Rabbi Feinstein the news of the call started to become agitated:
“Please, Rosh Yeshiva, Eretz Yisrael is waiting. It's extremely urgent!”
“What do you want me to do?” replied the great Rabbi. “There's a wall behind me!”
We live in an era where, for many people, the Ten Commandments have become the Ten Suggestions. A mitzvah is not a suggestion; it is a reality. We may not be able to see that reality, but that doesn't make it any the less real. When Rabbi Feinstein said he couldn't back up, he meant that he couldn't. Not that he didn't think it was a good idea, but, rather, the spiritual reality of the situation placed a barrier behind him as solid as any structure of brick and mortar.
This is the way a Jew must relate to his Judaism. This week's Torah portion teaches us that the firstborn is entitled to a double portion in the inheritance of his father. The Torah stipulates that the father may not transfer this double portion to another son whom he likes more.
Puzzling is the way this commandment is phrased. The Torah tells the father: You will not be able to endow the beloved son to the detriment of the disliked son.
Similarly, when a person finds a lost object, he is required to take steps to secure its return to the owner. The Torah says that a person cannot just ignore the article and assume that someone else will deal with it. You shall not hide yourself (22:3), says the Torah. Here again, the literal translation is: You will not be able to hide yourself.
The Torah doesn't just demand a code of behavior from us — it demands that we become a certain kind of person. It is not enough that we don't perform favoritism. It is not enough that we return lost objects. The Torah requires that we become the sort of people that would find it impossible to allow such behavior, that we ingrain
- Sources: Ibn Ezra, Avi Ezri, Rabbi Mordechai Perlman