We are all familiar with situations where we are suddenly called on to abandon what we are doing and give help to someone who needs it. One’s first instinct is all too often to turn a blind eye – ‘I didn’t see that’ – or to think ‘it’s not my business’ and get on with what we were doing.
Today’s parashah, Ki Teitzei, warns against this. ‘You shall not see the ox of your brother or his lamb gone astray, and hide yourself; you must bring them back to your brother’ (Deuteronomy 22:1). The Hebrew v’hitalamta, ‘and hide yourself’, implies looking the other way. Rashi comments, ‘kovesh ayin k’ilu eino roehu‘ – ‘he covers his eye as if he doesn’t see it’.
Parashat Ki Teitzei, which according to Maimonides has 72 positive and negative commandments, has no logical structure. There is a mix of compassion and what we find to be unacceptable cruelty, and some rules whose purpose isn’t clear. Captive women whom one wishes to marry must be treated with consideration and respect; the rights of the firstborn son are affirmed; a stubborn and rebellious son is – at his parents’ request – to be stoned by the community; lost animals must be restored to their owners and fallen animals helped up; flat roofs must be made safe with parapets; ploughing with ox and ass together is forbidden; mixtures of wool and linen (shaatnez) are not to be worn; cross-dressing is forbidden, and so on.
But Ki Teitzei is also remarkable for passages of great delicacy and sensitivity, and compassion for the feelings of the weak and the oppressed. Slaves who have fled from foreign countries are to be allowed to settle and must not be ill-treated; essential tools of trade must not be taken in pawn for debt; when taking a pledge for a loan, you must not barge into the debtor’s house, but wait outside until he fetches it; don’t take a widow’s garment in pawn; allow strangers, orphans and widows to glean in your fields and vineyards; pay the wages of a needy and destitute labourer before sundown, ‘whether a fellow countryman or a stranger’; don’t muzzle an ox while threshing; and if you find a bird’s nest with fledglings or eggs, ‘let the mother bird go and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life’ (Deuteronomy 22:7).
Reuven Hammer, in Entering Torah (2009), observes that our parashah is reminiscent of the ‘Holiness Code’ (Leviticus chapters 17-26), also a series of regulations ranging over ethical and ritual matters. But in the Holiness Code the people are told k’doshim tih’yu – ‘You shall be holy’ (Lev. 19:2) – whereas in Ki Teitzei the word ‘holy’ never appears’¦ the emphasis here is’¦on the conduct of everyday life that makes for a good society’.
Referring to Ki Teitzei, Rabbi Hammer suggests that, ‘this section could be deemed not a Holiness Code but a Sensitivity Code. ‘¦These are not simply laws, but an attempt to mould the character of the individual, to sharpen our sensitivities so that in any situation we will think first of the implications of what we are doing, and how it will affect other people’¦The supreme sin is indifference to others, ignoring their needs, looking the other way and avoiding the necessity to help others.’
Michael Rose is a co-founder of New North London Synagogue