The Position of Parashat Ki Tetze in the Book of Devarim
Summarized by Danny Orenbuch
The Book of Devarim can be divided into three sections:
I) The parashot of Devarim, Va-etchanan and Ekev, which recount the history of Am Yisrael and also direct some rebuke towards the nation.
II) Re'eh, Shoftim and Ki Tetze, which are characterized by the multitude of mitzvot and halakhot which they contain.
III) From Ki Tavo until the end of the Sefer, which deals with preparations and activities in anticipation of the entry into Eretz Yisrael.
The middle section can be further subdivided into two parts: Parashot Re'eh and Shoftim on the one hand, and this week's parasha on the other. The first two describe public and national issues to be confronted upon entry to the land: Re'eh is concerned with the Mikdash and the mitzvot pertaining to it, while Shoftim deals with the establishment of an administrative infrastructure of judges and police in the promised land. Our parasha, in contrast, describes specifically the preparations to be made by the individual in anticipation of the entry into Eretz Yisrael, and his obligation as an individual to strive continually upwards in his spirituality.
This sheds new light on the structure of Sefer Devarim and the situation of our parasha in the Sefer. The middle section of Devarim deals also with preparations for the entry into the land - the halakhic preparations which precede the practical actions, after which we may proceed, in the last section of Devarim, to an account of the actual activities themselves.
Our parasha also illuminates another perspective. Whereas other mitzvot reflect a clear and explicit distinction between the permissible and the prohibited, between that which is commanded and that which is to be avoided, between good and bad, our parasha presents a number of situations where the decision could be problematic; where a person could be faced with a moral dilemma.
This is certainly true in the case of the "yefat to'ar", the beautiful woman captured during a war, about whom we are taught that "the Torah tells us this [that she is permitted to a Jewish man, under certain clearly defined conditions] only in deference to the yetzer ha-ra [the evil inclination]". In other words, what we see here is not another example of the usual battle against the yetzer ha-ra but rather a situation where we give in to its desires.
The same is true of the "ben sorer u-moreh" - the rebellious son. On one hand the parents have a natural desire to have pity on him; on the other hand they are responsible for educating him in the true sense of the word - even to the point of being obligated to stone him.
Even the hanging of the corpse has two aspects to it: on one hand we abhor the sin, and for this reason the person is hanged. On the other hand, respect for the dead is also a consideration, and therefore the corpse is not left overnight. The issue of "mamzerut" (a child born of a prohibited union) arouses within us a feeling of pity for the child who suffers the consequences of his parents' actions throughout his life. The idea of the punishment of "malkot" (lashes) is spine-chilling, but here too there is a limit: "forty shall be administered and no more."
We are charged with the responsibility of sensing these contrasts and understanding where the Divine wisdom draws a sometimes fine line between the permissible and the forbidden.
(Originally delivered On Leil Shabbat, Parashat Ki Tetze 5752.
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)