This week's portion, Ki Tetse, can overwhelm us with its long list of laws. The sheer number is mind-boggling, and when we try to make sense of them, we are faced with mixed emotions and reactions.
They are designed to protect the weak from injustices: You must not use alternate weights and measures that would deceive the buyer of your goods; you must pay a laborer before sunset to make sure he can buy food; and similar protections of workers and the poor.
Some are more general -- you should build a parapet around your roof so that no one might fall off it; if a man marries a woman, he is commanded not to go to war for the first year of the marriage, "to give happiness to the woman he has married."
These are some of the commandments that form the foundation of the Jewish commitment to justice. Other laws are simply perplexing, such as the law requiring that one should not wear a garment that combines wool and linen together. There is no apparent reason for this law, and no further explanation. Yet it is followed as closely in the tradition as the other commandments.
The most challenging commandments we encounter are the ones that offend our modern sensibilities. In the case of the rebellious and wayward son, his parents are instructed to bring him to the elders of the town if they have tried to discipline him and failed. The men of the town then stone the son to death. Even the strictest parents among us shudder at this punishment!
Yet some biblical scholars point out that bringing the son to the elders represents a softening of Ancient Near Eastern Law --the punishment must be approved and carried out by a third party, rather than parents taking the law into their own hands.
The rabbis in the Talmudic period created such a limited definition of what the son must have done to receive this accusation (down to defining the amount of meat and alcohol he must have consumed at one meal to be considered gluttonous), that they essentially assured that this punishment would never take place. Most scholars believe that even in biblical times, it was never carried out.
Laws about certain relations between men and women are equally distasteful. If a man rapes a virgin, he must pay the girl's father 50 shekels of silver, and then marry his victim, losing the right to divorce her. Does this punish the rapist -- or the woman?
Yet again, this may have been a progressive law, forcing the man to take care of a woman who is now undesirable for marriage. To us today, this kind of thinking seems outrageous. The Talmudic rabbis also put limits on this group of laws.
How do we approach a Torah portion like this? We feel pride at the forward-thinking protection of the weak and poor, and repulsion at the laws that seem to perpetuate a rigid structure.
As we move deeper into the month of Elul, the month of scrutiny and reflection of ourselves and our own actions, we may encounter similarly mixed emotions. There are parts of ourselves that we can be proud of and want to further cultivate, parts that are simply perplexing, and parts that we might wish remain hidden. Now is the time to uncover those parts, too, to try to understand their roots and how they can slowly be reshaped to come more in line with the best parts of ourselves.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected] .