When I come to study Parshat Ki Tetze each year during the month of Elul, I often feel it’s as if Moses, standing on the Steppes of Moab and knowing that he has the entire community’s attention, is trying to say it all.
It reminds me of how I often felt around the High Holy Days. Like this Torah portion, many of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons were way too long and far too broad. With this awareness in mind, I am going to limit my comments this week to just two of the 72 diverse and diffuse commandments found in this week’s portion as counted by Maimonides in his “Sefer ha-Mitzvot.”
The last of these mitzvot is the command to wipe out the Amalekites, a topic I discussed in a d’var Torah I wrote about in the Standard in 2016. The focus of that drash was a comment that my professor of Bible at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Chanan Brichto, z”l, made in 1973. He said that we can — and in light of the contemporary Middle East we should — view Amalek as the biblical term for terrorists rather than as an actual ethnic tribe. This year, rather than viewing Amalekites as a dangerous “other,” threatening innocent people through terror — though sadly, the salience of Rabbi Brichto’s understanding remains strong — I want to share that I am personally wrestling with the question of whether the biblical Amalek is not a metaphor for the yetzer ha-ra within each of us.
Elul is a time to confront the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination within me, and within each of us, before we stand in judgment before Adon Olam, the Master of the Universe, during the forthcoming Days of Awe. Looking back upon the events of 5779, in our world, in our nation, in our community, and in our interpersonal relationships with family and friends, as well as with the strangers around us, I find myself questioning how well have I have tempered my yetzer ha-ra this past year.
Must not the first step toward atonement be understanding our individual responsibility to confront the Amalek characteristics we have exhibited through a lack of civility in our public discourse, and the insensitivity we have displayed in our interactions with family and friends and community members? As we approach the Yamim Noraim, I hear in the call to “wipe out Amalek” a command to control the Amalek tendencies within myself and within our society.
In search of a way to control the Amelek within, I want to focus our attention of another one of the 72 mitzvot in our parsha, the seemingly uninteresting command that we have to build a parapet — a fence or a wall —around our roofs.
In Deuteronomy 22:8 we read: “When you build a new house you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”
Why is the Torah worrying about building codes?
In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides wrote regarding the parapet, positive commandment 184: “By this injunction we are commanded to remove all obstacles and sources of danger from all places in which we live; that is to build walls or parapets around roofs, cisterns, trenches and the like…. In like manner it is obligatory to remove and guard against every obstacle which constitutes a threat to life and limb…”
As we approach the High Holy Days, with their theme of personal and communal judgment, the “peshat,” the literal letter of this mitzvah, remains relevant and salient. At this time of accounting and accountability, can we as a society recognize that in many so called “natural disasters” the devastation is not just due to the force of nature but rather to the human choices we make? Climate change is not a natural disaster, but rather a human one. At the end of Chapter One of Genesis, God appoints Adam as the custodian of the world. During our 40-day period of accountability, which extends from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, can any of us give our generation a passing grade on our custodial responsibilities?
I believe that we also can see the parapet that we are commanded to build as a metaphor reminding us that we have a responsibility to not let the poor fall off the edges of our societal roofs; that we are responsible for demanding of our elected officials that they work together on the resettlement of refugees. For me, the ethical and moral teachings of Torah, so many of which are listed in this week’s Torah reading, are the parapet or fence that can guard each of us from falling off the plain of decency into the cistern of hatred and selfishness.
This brings me back to the 72nd mitzvah in our parsha, calling upon us to wipe out the Amalekites. I hear in the mitzvah to build a fence on our rooftops a call to myself to use the mitzvot of Torah as a fence around the yetzer ha-ra within me. Uncontrolled passion, like a wild fire or a flood, is an unbelievably destructive force. Yet, tempered by compassion and the ethical and moral teachings of Torah, our passion can lead us individually and communally to repair the ruptures in ourselves and in society.
May 5780 be a year in which we turn from building walls of separation and instead seek to build a parapet of the ethical and moral teachings of Torah that will, in accordance with the teaching of Rambam, lead us to fulfill our obligation to remove and guard against every obstacle that constitutes a threat to life and limb, not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but also for the needy and the strangers in our midst.