“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 22:12)
Parashat Ki Teitzei includes a long list of seemingly unrelated laws: war brides, rebellious sons, honoring the dead, gender-based clothing, home security, forbidden mixtures of fabrics and seeds, tassels, interest rates, escaped slaves, and more. Rabbi Michael Marmur (Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Provost at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) suggests a single phrase offers a unifying principle.
Ki Teitzei teaches when your neighbor loses something and you find it, you must return it, even if this involves some inconvenience or hardship (Deut. 22:1-2). As is often the case in Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei is repeating a commandment given previously (Exodus 23:4), with a slight addition: “…lo tuchal l’hitalem” (Deut. 22:3). L’hitalem means to hide, turn away, or ignore. Lo tuchal, though, is an ambiguous phrase. In Shoftim, last week’s parasha, or portion, lo tuchal clearly means a prohibition against elevating a foreigner to be king (Deut. 17:15). In Ki Tavo, next week’s parasha, lo tuchal just as clearly means the physical impossibility of healing from a disease. So which is it in Ki Teitzei? You do not have permission, as in Shoftim, or you do not have the ability, as in Ki Tavo?
Marmur suggests lo tuchal in this context cannot be read either as a law or as a description of reality. Rather it is a call to look beyond yourself and connect to the world around you until the habit is so ingrained it is impossible – lo tuchal!– to turn away from a person in need. When the action is unthinkable, the prohibition is unnecessary.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom