A Word of Torah - Parashat Ki Tetzei

As a rabbinical student, I attended a lecture taught by a sofer - a scribe - who demonstrated for us some of the tools he used in creating a Torah scroll. Among them was a sheet of parchment covered with ink blotches. The scribe showed us how, before beginning to work on the scroll, he would inscribe the name Amalek on this sheet and then blot it out. Thus did he honor (if not exactly fulfill) the commandments in this week’s Torah portion to both remember Amalek and erase the memory of him (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

This exercise strikes me as a clever if incomplete way of dealing with apparently contradictory commandments. There are other places in Deuteronomy where we are asked to reconcile commandments or statements that are at odds with each other. Notably, two weeks ago, in Parashat Re’eh, we read first that “there shall be no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4) and later that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

If it doesn’t lead to madness, negotiating between contradictions can yield real insight as we seek to uncover the truth hiding somewhere in the middle. At times, the truth seems to be in the negotiation itself - as though that truth cannot be found directly but must be discovered by measuring the distance between a clearly articulated principle and the messy reality of human life. Indeed, such negotiation is a constant in Jewish thought which tends away from doctrinaire assertions in favor of deeper and subtler truths.

One particularly doctrinaire phrase in this week’s Torah portion points us toward an important contradiction that demands a more subtle resolution. The phrase is “Thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.” By my count, it appears four times in this parashah, three times to justify the stoning of a woman for what the Torah considers shameful sexual conduct (Deuteronomy 22:13-24 and 21:18-21 – discussed below).

I like nothing about this phrase. To me, it evokes visions of Puritanical witch hunts. Even the verb used, bi-arta, translated here as “sweep away” but which implies doing so by burning, has a shockingly graphic quality to it. As though this weren’t enough, this troublesome phrase is occasionally followed by the admonition that “all Israel will hear and be afraid,” thus completing the picture of a society ruled by angry zealots out to impose their fundamentalist notions through terror. I shudder to think how often these phrases have been read just this way.

Of course rabbinic thought has steered us clear of such readings. The best example of this is the case of the stubborn, rebellious son who can be stoned to death at the behest of his parents in order to “sweep away evil” and cause Israel to “hear and be afraid” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Yet the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 8) reads the terms of these verses so literally as to make them inoperable. The son must, in addition to other restrictions, be within a three month range of sexual maturity, be gorged on meat, drunk on Italian wine, and have parents whose voices are indistinguishable from one another.

Now one may consider this argument a clever way of rendering moot a law which is morally unthinkable. But Jewish tradition sees it instead as uncovering the Torah’s actual intention: There never has been and there never will be such a son, and the Torah teaches this law “that (we) may study it and receive reward” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a). In reading the story this way, the rabbis negotiate a contradiction: between their faith in the Torah’s perfection and the unnatural cruelty its words seem to countenance.

And this negotiation helps us see the contradiction inherent in the phrase that so troubles me: how can a species whose every urge is “only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5) ever sweep away evil from its midst? It can only do so by negotiating the difference between our basest motivations and highest aspirations. We do not sweep away evil when we stone the rebellious son, or the bride who turns out not to have been a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Rather, we do so by mastering the impulse to evil in ourselves.

Was such self-mastery what Moses had in mind when he commanded a stiff-necked people to “sweep away evil in your midst”? The many blotches on the sofer’s parchment show that no amount of blotting can erase the memory of Amalek. Contradictions are inherent in the Torah as indeed they are in the lives of those who study it. Is it any wonder, then, that those who do so would see in those contradictions a divinely given gift to learn from them and receive the reward of becoming better by doing so?

Bruce Alpert