The rabbis of our tradition are always seeking a way to summarize the list of the laws in the Torah-613 in all. We work hard to first remember and then keep all of those laws; these mitzvot are what guide us, inspire us, agitate us, and remind us of the best that is in us. But 613 laws are hard to grasp. If you had to boil it down to its essential message, what would you say?
I’d say the Torah’s overriding message is this: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Take this week’s parasha-Ki Tetzei. The portion contains a whopping 72 laws-more than in any other Torah portion. And we need to study it intently. It’s an incredible and complex guide to family, animals, property, civil and criminal law, sexual relationships, loans, vows, divorce, fair wages, proper weights and measures, the laws of war, and even a law about memory. In order to live out these texts, we must first study them, delve into their meanings, explore the varied interpretations that the teachers of Jewish tradition have extrapolated from and overlaid on them.
But let’s say that a person doesn’t have time to read every law and every single interpretation this week. It’s a short week, after all, and this person has to purchase school supplies, get the kids off to school, and start finding the brisket recipe for Rosh Hashanah.
If one didn’t have time to study every text in Ki Tetzei, what would be a mnemonic device to help remember the big picture, the essential value behind the laws in the portion.
Try this: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
When you go to war, whether that be against another nation or another person, there are rules. Just because you have the power to enslave another people, or another person, doesn’t mean you should.
Even if you have a favorite among your children, and you have the ability to shower him with more gifts than the others, doesn’t mean you should.
Just because you have grown up, and the dynamics have changed in your family, and you now have the ability to rebel against your parents, doesn’t mean you should.
If you see something that belongs to someone else and you think, “I could keep this,” don’t. It’s not yours. Return it.
You see a bird sitting on eggs in a nest and think, by taking the eggs and the mother bird, I can have an omelet today and more omelets tomorrow! No, says the Torah. You are permitted to take the eggs, but not the mother bird. (Make sure to apply this one to situations beyond literal mother birds and eggs!)
You build a house. You think to yourself, “I wash my hands of liability for anything that happens to people who visit my house.” You might think this, but the Torah commands that you build a parapet around the edges of your roof to prevent people from falling off. Think about that this winter when you debate with yourself about whether or not you really need to shovel the whole sidewalk.
What if every one of us lived this way? We have a quick decision to make. There’s no time in this case to go back and read the 72 laws in Ki Tetzei, or the other 541 laws in the Torah. But I want to make my decisions by looking through a Jewish lens. What should I do?
I suggest asking yourself this question. Just because I can do this thing-just because God has given me the power to create, destroy, build, break down, take whatever I want, ignore whoever I want-just because I can, does that mean I should?
Sometimes, the answer will be yes, and that’s okay. Judaism is not an ascetic religion, calling on us to deny the pleasures of the world. But if we ask ourselves this question before making an impulsive decision, I think it has the capacity to help us be more aware of our surroundings, more aware of our obligation to share this world with all of God’s creatures, more aware of the Torah’s big picture mission statement for our lives.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Try it.