Ki Tetze: The Challenges of Interpreting Texts

This week’s portion, “Ki Tetze” presents us with a myriad of laws that range again from warfare to economics. They are, according to commentaries, designed to establish a social contract as the Israelites prepare to enter Canaan. traditional commentators often elaborated on the literal texts to weave interpretations that spoke to a variety of issues. In their “Sparks Beneath The Surface”, Rabbis Olitzky and Kushner note a comment by Isaiah ben Abraham Ha-Levi Horowitz on the first sentence of the portion : “When you go out to battle against your enemy, and God delivers him into your hands and you take him captive” (Deut.21:10). The interpretation gets off the literal aspect of warfare and sees in this the war between our good and evil impulses and the fact that when a person subdues these evil impulses, and “captures” them, it is a way of transforming sin into merit. This is timely for us in Elul as we approach the Holidays and the themes of returning to God.
This portion also contains one of the most important texts that speak to the long history of Judaism and medicine. In Deuteronomy 22.1 and 2 we read that is a person looses his ox, we are charged with the command to return it to him. Indeed, the last part of this verse 2 says that we “shall restore it to him”. What does this have to do with medicine and healing? A classic interpretation by Maimonides (12th century), who was, remember a practicing physician in Egypt, equates that lost property with illness. When we are sick, we lose our health and thus from this verse we learn that we are commanded to try to return lost items to their rightful owner. This interpretation was a Maimonidean explanation of allowing human beings to tamper with illness and restore a person’s health. Indeed, the thrust of this interpretation sees this as a divine act, as Judaism understood the importance of maintaining health and wellness. Thus, when we go to the doctor and the doctor treats us and helps guide us in the restoration of the health that has been lost, the doctor is fulfilling a divine command, all based on this interpretation from Deuteronomy 22:2 from this week’s portion.
Yes, these verses, in their literal sense, have nothing to do with the symbolic sense that commentators have written about. This idea of taking a text and seeing what can be evolved from the literal words, is a classic method allowing an ancient text to continue to live and speak to each age. For us, in this run up to the Holidays, these verses can speak to us. For we often will reflect on the on-going struggle in our souls between those impulses for growth and those impulses and desires that inhibit us. In that struggle, may be find the paths that allow the good and sacred in our lives that we have lost, to be returned to us so that we may enjoy long life, health and peace in this coming year.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Richard F Address

1 Comment

  1. This interpretation really speaks to me at this time. I am working with my Aunt who is dealing with end of life issues and acceptance and refusal of tests and treatments. I am also in a position of accepting/refusing tests and treatments and making choices about restoring my health in some ways. For Aunt (almost 89 years old) I give support and information on a level that she can understand. The comfort and permission I give her via listening and information; telling her to choose for herself and her quality of life rather than worrying about being a burden to others seems to give her peace. Thank you for this article.

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