We all know the Torah is a book of love, caring, and kindness. And you really feel the love when the Torah commands us to sentence people to death. And this week’s parsha; Ki Seitzei does that plenty. Let’s look at some examples!
If a girl is accused of and is proven adulterous – Death!
If there is a wayward and rebellious youth – Death!
If a man has an affair with a married woman – Death!
If a man kidnaps another person and sells him into slavery… you guessed it. Death!
I think there’s another adultery one in there – Death!
And once you stone the wretched sinners, then you hang them for all to see.
So how are we to say that Judaism is a religion of love and peace when the death penalty is used so rampantly? And for such seemingly minor things? We’re not talking murder or even idolatry here!
Well, let’s look at this case of the wayward and rebellious youth (Devarim 21:18). If a boy is of a certain age and he disobeys his parents, drinks a lot, and really likes steak, he’s liable for the death penalty. He hasn’t stolen anything, he hasn’t killed anyone, but the Torah says he has to die. However, the commentaries say in order for this to be carried out, he has to be between some particular age and his bar mitzvah. Basically it’s a super narrow window which is practically incalculable. So the rabbis say that a case like this never actually happened.
But this isn’t the only instance of stringent criteria for execution. In fact, for all sentences of the death penalty, it required an almost absurd level of criteria. One, there had to be two eye witnesses to the offense. And those witnesses were invalid if they were related to the victim, the assailant, or each other. Two, the assailant committing the crime must have been warned that the act that they were committing was a capital offense. Three, the assailant had to acknowledge to the witnesses that they understood what they were doing was liable for the death penalty and then proceed to do the crime anyway.
Then on top of all that, the trial wasn’t juried by twelve citizens who had common knowledge of the law (like we do), but by a 71 member Jewish supreme court known as the Sanhedrin, who had comprehensive understanding of criminal law, Torah, and halacha. And just so we’re clear, death sentences could only be pronounced by the Sanhedrin, and since there’s no Sanhedrin anymore, that means no one today can be put to death from a Torah commandment. The point is death sentences were very rarely declared. So rare in fact, that if a death sentence was passed once in 7 years, it was considered a blood thirsty court.
Going to War
If the death penalty weren’t enough, this parsha also talks about going to war!
“When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your God, will deliver him into your hand…” (Devarim 21:10)
The Torah continues on, giving insights into the rules of warfare. But Chassidic commentators say that when the Torah says “your enemies,” it’s not just referring to invading soldiers. They say it’s referring to your yetzer hara, your evil inclination.
The yetzer hara is the side of ourselves that continually persists to drive us to do the wrong thing. It can be small things, (sleeping in, eating a second piece of cheesecake) and it can be not so small things, (lashing out at someone in anger, giving into our most self-destructive urges.) The Torah insists we are all capable of great things and deep down we all know it. But the yetzer hara is the voice that tells us that we’re not capable, that it’s too hard, that we’re not strong enough, smart enough, or that we’re just not that type of person. To this the Torah insists that we must constantly be in battle with the yetzer hara, that it’s a war.
So Why Now?
An important thing to note is that parsha Ki Seitzei always is read during the first weeks of the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is known as a special month for personal growth and preparing to do teshuvah. During Elul a person’s ability to improve their character traits are exponentially more effective. It is the optimal time to make ground in our wars against the yetzer hara. Especially if we reflect and identify the areas of growth we wish to conquer. I can’t recommend enough how potent this time of the year is to make these strides.
And that’s great, by once again, why did this parsha speak so much about the death penalty? The answer is found after the Torah speaks out the sentence. “And you shall destroy the evil from your midst.” Each and every time that the death penalty is declared, that phrase immediately follows. Sure, the simple meaning is that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be in the midst of evil. But the deeper meaning is that we should rid ourselves of the evil from within ourselves, that we must fight this war against the yetzer hara.
Death and Life
Elul is immediately followed by Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana we believe God starts writing the Book of Life for the next year and on Yom Kippur the Book is sealed. What Ki Seitzei is saying, by juxtaposing death sentences with reminder to fight our yetzer hara, is that we’ve had a year to improve, now it’s time to get serious. Life or death serious. It’s when we are real with the understanding that life is about growth, change, and striving for greatness, it is then that we are really living. If we’re not doing that, why are we asking for another year of life from our Creator? To get a better job? To make our bank account look like our phone number? No. It’s to accomplish great things. What’s stopping you from that? Figure that out and get to it.
It’s time to go to war.