The Zechirot of Ki Teitzei by Yehoshua Kanarek


In Judaism, as is well known, there are Sheish Zechirot: Ma’amad Har Sinai, Ma’aseh Ha’Eigel, Shabbat, Ma’aseh Miriam, Yetziat Mitzraim, and Amalek. Of these six, the latter three are all found, remarkably, in a dense section towards the coda of Parashat Ki Teitzei.

The Torah juxtaposes Zechirat Miriam(24:9) with the affliction of Tzara’at (24:8), caused by transgressing the sin of Lashon HaRa. The Ramban (Ibid) emphasizes the gravity of this and other Zechirot by explaining that they are all Mitzvot Assei, requiring Zechirah SheBaLeiv as well as BaPeh.

In addition to Ramban, Chizkuni and Rashbam add to the weight of the Zechirah by noting that despite Miriam’s greatness, being the sister of a king and priest, despite her own great merits, despite the privacy of her Lashon HaRa, and, above all, despite the fact that it was ‘just her brother,’ whose very life she saved in infancy, she was still punished. She had to remain exiled from all three camps of the Jewish people, remain outside of the rings of Kedushah that permeated from the Mishkan all the way to the edge of Machaneh Yisrael, for this seemingly casual transgression of Lashon Hara.

This can be explained by looking at the nature of Lashon Hara and its relation to the Parashah’s theme. When one speaks Lashon HaRa, the catastrophic effects are immediate, and they spread like wildfire. First the rumors spread, whether true or false[1], and people start whispering about him behind his back. He then becomes isolated from everyone else, feeling distances and shunned by all others, just because someone spoke ill of him. One who causes another to feel like he doesn’t belong, like he is an outsider, has no place among the Kedushah of Am Yisrael and must therefore be exiled, even if it is someone as great as Miriam.

The next Zechirah of Yetziat Mitzraim (24:18)- which appears in other places throughout Tanach- is brought up in the context of the Lav of Lo Tateh (24:17), do not pervert the judgment for a Ger or Yatom, people who, as Rashi (Ibid) notes, are especially vulnerable. The Ger and the Yatom are individuals who, due to their circumstances, often find themselves already distanced from the community: the Ger, because he was born an outsider; the Yatom, because of the terrible tragedy which has struck his family.

Chizkuni (Ibid) writes that the reason for this Zechirah is that we must remember that we were once slaves and needed the help of others. As such, how can we ever allow someone who needs that help, who has that same desperate feeling which is all too familiar to us, to be further distanced from the community? How can we actively push away and take advantage of people like the Geirim and the Yetomim who need the very same help that we did?

Ramban elaborates upon this position in drawing parallel between the Jewish historical experience and that of the Ger or Yatom. When we were forced to work back breaking labor, when we cried out in pain, only Hashem, who sees “Dimat Ha’Ashukim Asher Ein Lahem Menacheim,” was there to comfort us. There is a mandate of ‘VeHalachta BeDrachav’ (Devarim 28:9), that we should attempt to emulate Hashem’s ways. As Hashem had compassion upon us during our period of Egyptian bondage, surely, imitatio dei requires our showing the same degree of compassion for those in greatest need.

This understanding of Zechirat Yetziat Mitzraim in the context of the admonition regarding the Ger and Yatom segues into the third and final Zechirah of the Parashah, which is of course Zechirat Amalek (25:17-18). The Torah commands us to remember what Amalek did to us during our journey from the Exodus from Egypt, that “VaYizaneiv Becha Kol HaNecheshalim Acharecha.” Onkelus (Ibid) writes “VeKatel Bach Kol DeHavu Mitacharin Batrach,” which means that Amalek killed those who were straggling behind the rest of the Jews. Ramban (Ibid) explains that we must relay the crimes of Amelek to future generations so that the reason for the annihilation of Amalek is clear to these unborn descendents.

In each of the three Zechirot of this Parshah, we see that the less fortunate tend to find themselves straggling behind, distanced, and marginalized. Each individual Zechirah seems to be accompanied by some form of Lav, or just a generally negative statement: don’t speak Lashon Harah, don’t take advantage of the Ger and Yatom, Amalek did terrible things to the stragglers.

I heard from Rabbi Daniel Fridman that each Zechirah enables us to internalize, and ultimately, practice, a critical lesson. In Megillat Esther, the key reason given for attempting to eradicate the Jews was the fact that they were “Mefuzar UMeforad” (Ester 3:8). They were a scattered and dispersed nation. The turning point in the whole story is when Ester gathers the nation together to fast, Leich Kenos Et Kol HaYehudim. From that point on, things only get better, as we well know. The very same thing applies to Amalek’s attack of the Jews in the desert. The reason they were able to attack us was because even then we were, to some extent, “Mefuzar UMeforad.” Had we been united, there would have been no stragglers to attack.  We left the weakest amongst us vulnerable to the attacks of a brutal and cynical adversary.

When reviewing the Mitzvot of Ki Teitzei, it is easy to get lost in all of the negative commands of things that do not belong together, things that don’t belong in Am Yisrael, that is becomes so easy to lose sight of our need for internal improvement. Not only must we avoid spiritually insidious activities and persons, but we must make sure that those within the Jewish people, especially those who are the easiest victims, never again find themselves left behind.

As members of the nation that were once Geirim, who have been attacked so many times, we must, above all, try and emulate Hashem’s nature by protecting those most likely to be marginalized.  As he clothes the naked, and visits the sick, and comforts the mourners, so must we (Sotah 14a).  And, as the triad of Zechirot in Ki Teitzei illustrate, this is a lesson surely worth remembering.

[1] In a technical sense, if the information is false, it is classified as Motzi Sheim Ra.

Teshuvah Me’Ahavah and Kabbalat HaTorah by Rabbi Daniel Fridman

Charging Interest by Akiva Sturm