Your Head Above the Water is good but not nearly enough

Ki Tetzeh (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19) is the Torah portion with the highest amount of Mitzvot in the entire Torah: 74 Mitzvot.

Maimonides explains that the function of the Mitzvot is to help us sharpen our humanity, or in other words, to bring more “human” to our beings.

I want to start by exploring the first 3 Mitzvot in this Torah portion.

When you are in a war and you see among the captives a wonderful woman, you can take her as a wife, but not so fast! You shall bring her into your home, shave her head and let her nails grow. She shall remove the garment of captivity and sit in your house and weep for her father and her mother for an entire month. Only after that you may come and possess her and she will be a wife for you. Now, if you end up deciding that you don’t want to take her as a wife (before you possess her) you are obligated to give her her freedom. 

This law is followed by the law that prohibits you from giving precedence to the son of the favorite wife. If you have two sons from different wives and the first-born is from the one that you despise, he still has the rights of the first-born.

Now, the third law is about a perverse and rebellious son – Sorer Umore – who doesn’t obey his father and his mother; you are obligated to bring such a son in front of a court and he could be sentenced to death.

Many Torah commentators explain that the fact that these 3 Mitzvot are together isn’t a coincidence but rather a sequence, in which Torah is trying to tell us: Yes, you can take a captive woman as a wife. But the fact that you can legally do something doesn’t make it right… When something is wrong in its foundation, apparently all the rest is going to go wrong as well… 

Torah is saying: yes, you can! But please, please – you better not! As the famous story of the difference between the wise person and the clever one tells: The clever person figures out how to escape from places that the wise won’t enter in the first place.

I once heard that a possible definition for power is the ability to refrain from doing something that you are able to do. 


Our Torah portions starts off talking about Milchama – war; And it ends with our arch-enemy Amalek. Now, don’t get it wrong; The Torah commands us to erase Amalek. And that’s not a metaphor, but it leads to the challenge of how to identify Amalek! In the bible  the enemies of the people of Israel were “temporary” enemies. You are not supposed to forever fight the Egyptians or the Moavites! However, Amalek is a trans-generational problem, it is a forever-enemy, and it’s always there. Amalek is the one that attacks you from behind, in moments of deep weakness. Amalek is by nature hard to identify and therefore to confront. Amalek is a slippery enemy. This might be because beyond the biblical representation, Amalek is a negative force attacking us from inside. It might be our short-comings, our grudges, our rancor, it might be our lack of faith in ourselves or even worse – it might be the belief that we have no ability or no self-value. Amalek might be our self-sabotage. 

In Jewish tradition we have two types of war: מלחמת רשות, which is the kind of war that requires consultation and could possibly be avoided, and מלחמת חובה, obligatory war, in which you just need to go out and fight. The war against Amalek is מלחמת חובה, an obligatory one.

Facing the internal forces that bring us down and prevent us from being in a loving and constructive relationship with ourselves is the leitmotif, the recurring melody of the months of Elul and Tishrei in our calendar. We are engaged in a fight in which we reclaim our souls. During this time of the year power isn’t enough. Being clever is not enough either. In this time of the year, to win this battle we are summoned to use the wisdom of will-power, we are summoned to work toward becoming a reflection of our purest yearnings and aspirations. Many of us live our lives doing what we can. So probably the biggest challenge of this season  is to remember that the fact that we have the power to keep our heads above the water and yes, we breathe, doesn’t mean that we are really alive. Our self-disregard and indifference are often concealed by our: “I manage”. The fact that you can breathe doesn’t mean that you are alive. 

During this time of the year we are reminded that we can ask for more. However, everything comes down to a very simple question: Will you fight?

Shabbat Shalom


One comment

  • Thank you, Rabbi. The first email I read after being with Harvey all day. Thank you for helping me to do a little thinking and realize that just keeping my head above water is not where I want to be. I will give that some serious thought.

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