Parashat Ki Teitzei – Erev Shabbat 20 August 2021
Week of 15-21 August 2021
Torah portion: Deut 21:10-25:19 Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Theme: Protect the Vulnerable
Every day, each of us is faced with a myriad of choices about how we relate to others. Although some of them might seem quite insignificant, each of them can contribute to building an ideal society—something with which the book of Deuteronomy is concerned (Eskenazi, 1165). Whilst the worldview of the biblical authors might seem troubling at times—particularly in relation to patriarchal attitudes—wrestling with the texts in the context of the world in which we live, and in conversation with others, might help us to consider how we too might build a better world.
In this commentary, I will focus on a series of laws (Deut 24:16-24) designed to protect people considered vulnerable because of their lack of connection to other individuals who might protect them, and who thus required a greater duty of care from society as a whole: the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow (Eskenazi, 1181).
The person described as a resident alien (NRSV, Heb ger, also translated as “stranger” JPS and “sojourner” Schocken) was expected to follow the same laws as the Israelites with whom s/he lived (Exod 12:49; Num 15:16). They also enjoyed similar protections. Deut 24:14 insists that wages shall not be withheld from poor or needy laborers, whether Israelites or aliens living with them. This does not mean, however, that resident aliens also enjoyed the same status as Israelites. John Spencer suggests that the fact that they are singled out indicates that they were not considered full members of society. In Exodus 20:10 they are even listed after sons, daughters, servants, and cattle (AYBD, 104).
If we look at the societies in which we live we can observe similar tensions today—often amplified by privilege—where people seeking asylum, refugees, migrants, and others are treated differently to majority populations. These divisions are further complicated by color, gender, religious differences, sexual orientation, and poverty. In addition to these, people’s connection to the community can further be compromised by the death of parents or partners, such as the orphans and widows also mentioned here and throughout the Shared Scriptures (Lev 23:22; Deut 10:18, 24:17. 19; Jer 7:6, 22:3; Ezek 22:7. 29; Zech 7:10; Ps 94:6, 146:9, AYBD, 104). How then, does what we read here offer a challenge to this?
Firstly, resident aliens are to be ensured full judicial protection (Deut 24:17), because their position as outsiders exposes them to unfair treatment (Tigay, 228). This is followed immediately by a reminder of Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt (24:18). Having been oppressed, marginalized, and treated as outsiders, the Torah urges the Children of Israel to be sensitive to others in vulnerable positions. This is expressed even more directly earlier in Deut 10:19 and in Lev 19:33 where the Israelites are invited to love the alien, for they were once aliens themselves. This is then followed by the command to share the fruits of the harvest—grain, olive, and grape—with those who are poor, bereft, or outcast (Deut 24:19-21). This command is also followed by a further reminder of Israel’s exile in Egypt (24:22).
In these passages, we are not only called to treat the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow justly; we are called to recognize all people as having their origins in and belonging to God. We are reminded of the pain that we have suffered when others were unable to recognize us as sisters and brothers. We are also challenged to be open to others at a time in our history when society is becoming more and more closed to those considered outsiders.
For Reflection and Discussion: Who are the outsiders in my community? How are they treated differently? What privilege do I enjoy? How does it shape the way that I relate to others?
Bibliography: Eskenazi, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ, 2008); Freedman, ed. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992); Tigay, Deuteronomy, JPS Torah Commentary (JPS, 1996).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh, Melbourne (Wurundjeri Country),Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013