In the Bible, much of the legislation transmitted by God to Israel is reassuringly unambiguous. When he seeks to establish God's rules, Moses frequently defines distinct categories into which things are sorted; some are permitted and others are forbidden. The law arrives with laser-sharp precision. There is no room for debate or dispute over what God has determined to be abhorrent or abominable, and the boundaries of the "thou shalts" and the "thou shalt nots" are inviolable. Witchcraft is always forbidden, leprosy always confers ritual impurity, and swine is always unkosher.
Religiously observant individuals understand that the clarity of these categories can be deeply comforting. Knowing with confidence what God expects one to do-or to avoid-can be soothing in times of moral uncertainty and ambiguity. In this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, however, we encounter a string of legal pronouncements from God that seem to create a new sort of Israelite legislation. In each of these cases, the parashah veers from the established model of religious law and creates a surprising new principle: it now becomes clear that some people and practices that were previously taboo can be transformed and redeemed.
Consider these examples:
A woman from among the nations of Israel's enemies can become a suitable wife for an Israelite man (Deuteronomy 21:10-13)
A convicted murderer is put to death, but after the execution, his corpse must be accorded respect (21:22-23)
Slaves who seek refuge among Israel cannot be returned to their owners, despite previously established laws (see Exodus 21:2-11, 26-27; Deuteronomy 15:12-18) of property ownership (23:16-17)
Convicted criminals are protected from social denigration despite having been sentenced to corporal punishment (25:1-3)
This is a portion single-mindedly dedicated to the eradication of moral and ritual depravity from the community of Israel. Five times in this parashah, the text repeats that its legislation is given to Israel in order that we may "sweep out evil from [our] midst" (see 21:21, 22:21-22, 22:24, 24:7) The moral correctness of our communities is so critical that one is obligated to hand over even one's own child for execution if he is wayward and disobedient (21:18-21). Blended with these strict rules, however, is the new idea that even the most despicable individuals are capable of transformation.
To be sure, Parashat Ki Teitzei also contains a substantial amount of standard black-and-white biblical law in which the boundaries of forbidden categories are reinforced and are never to be crossed. The Torah's rigid prohibition on adultery is reinforced here, for instance; transvestitism is similarly prohibited (22:5), as is the mixing of animal or vegetable species (22:9-11). But the most intriguing parts of the parashah arise when it teaches us that the things we thought were unredeemable sources of iniquity turn out not to be so toxic after all.
One section of the portion concerns the status of other nations that surrounded Israel in the ancient world: there is no room in God's sacred precinct for Ammonites or Moabites (23:4). This will be unsurprising to the seasoned reader of the Bible. What is novel, though, is the teaching that Israel's favor and respect need to be bestowed on nations that previously were only to be ignored or reviled. Edom and Egypt, Israel's archenemies, are now set aside for special dispensation from Israel: "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land" (23:8-9).
In previous chapters, taboo individuals, substances, and practices were unambiguously outlawed for the people Israel, but this parashah teaches about the middle ground, the liminal space between permitted and forbidden. We might previously have thought of these margins as constituting an impenetrable boundary, but Parashat Ki Teitzei makes it clear that this is not so. Of course, the portion does not ignore the reality that God does act frequently as an impassioned judge who draws distinctions between good and evil. Instead, the lesson seems to be that God's presence does not always arrive only to permit or abolish; it is also a powerful force of change and transformation. Things that might previously have been dangerous, mysterious, or threatening now reveal themselves as opportunities for holiness, chances for us to make God's presence manifest among us.
Parashat Ki Teitzei identifies things that can be transformed into something positive but ultimately itends with the admonition to remember Amalek, the eternal enemy of Israel. Amalek's threat derives from the fact that he is "undeterred by fear of God" (25:18); what we need to fear most is the temptation to believe that God's presence is irrelevant. To refute this calumny, God's people must insist on defending God's potential for cultural and religious change in the world, demonstrating that wayward oxen, disobedient children, and even common criminals can be transformed into reflections of holy presence. God's word is not simply a celestial finger that wags disapprovingly. It is the sign of a relationship with the Divine, capable of redeeming things that once were sources of depravity or wickedness.
That hopeful sense of promise and potential lies at the heart of this Hebrew month of Elul. This time of year, as we approach the grandeur and the majesty of the High Holy Days, we prepare our deepest selves to absorb the Holy Days' powerful messages of repentance and salvation. Parashat Ki Teitzei reminds us that this work will not be in vain. If we seek earnestly, we will continue to find God, even in unlikely places. In our search for what is holy, during the Days of Awe and beyond, God's presence reveals to us what is permissible and what is not. But at times, with plenty of patience and a little luck, that search may also bring us to the inspiring conclusion that we can be completely and permanently transformed by a touch of the Divine.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. Rabbi Hayon welcomes feedback from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.