Ki Teitzei: Pursuit of Unity and the Preservation of Individuality
Parashat Ki Teitzei contains more laws than any other Parasha in the Torah. There are a few commands that make you wonder why would G-d put this in the Torah? By examining and understanding them it will teach us an important lesson about society and leadership. If we see an animal, or anything else that belongs to one of our neighbors, we’re supposed to return it (Devarim 22:1-3):
לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ
וְאִם־לֹ֨א קָר֥וֹב אָחִ֛יךָ אֵלֶ֖יךָ וְלֹ֣א יְדַעְתּ֑וֹ וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ֙ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ וְהָיָ֣ה עִמְּךָ֗ עַ֣ד דְּרֹ֤שׁ אָחִ֙יךָ֙ אֹת֔וֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹת֖וֹ לֽוֹ
וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֗ה לְכׇל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם
As Jews, we believe that G-d created each of us in his image. If we look down on others because of their race, we are essentially, demeaning G-d’s image and failing to respect human dignity. We cannot complain about others’ racist attitudes if we have them ourselves. “First correct yourself; then (seek to) correct others” as it says in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 107b).
The Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) says: “These are two principles to which most everyone will subscribe: the pursuit of unity and the preservation of individuality. The question is always in the particulars—in the who, what, when, where and how of life. Hence the Torah's function as the harbinger of peace in the world. The Torah describes itself as G‑d's "blueprint for creation"--a master plan which details and delineates the manner in which the various components of creation were designed by their Creator to interact and unite. The Torah tells us which entities should be joined together and which should be held apart; it instructs us if, when, and how a given element or force in creation should be integrated into our lives” (Rebbe). For example:
לֹא־תִזְרַ֥ע כַּרְמְךָ֖ כִּלְאָ֑יִם פֶּן־תִּקְדַּ֗שׁ הַֽמְלֵאָ֤ה הַזֶּ֙רַע֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּזְרָ֔ע וּתְבוּאַ֖ת הַכָּֽרֶם
“You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop—from the seed you have sown—and the yield of the vineyard may not be used” (Devarim 22:9). When we plant different seeds together in close proximity, they take nourishment from each other.
Our sages say that G-d originally created the world under the attribute of strict justice but saw that it could not survive through this alone. Therefore, he built into it principles of compassion (Rashi on Bereishit 1:1, s.v. bara). Compassion is why we are told in Devarim to return lost items to their owner, and sow seeds with enough distance between each other.
Leaders must have compassion. It is very easy to become a leader by mobilizing the forces of hate. We only need to look at history to see how that unfolds. That is what happened in the former Yugoslavia, Armenia, Europe during Nazi Germany, the genocide of Rwanda and still occurs in many parts of the world today. Many “leaders” are using the internet to communicate paranoia, fear, and acts of terror. Rabbi Sacks writes “The language of hate is capable of creating enmity between people of different faiths and ethnicities who have lived peaceably together for centuries. It has consistently been the most destructive force in history, and even knowledge of the Holocaust has not put an end to it, even in Europe. It is the unmistakable mark of toxic leadership” (Ki Teitzei).
Moshe taught B’nai Yisrael not to hate. Our Torah teaches us how to have compassion and how to become leaders who can engage with followers with higher levels of morality. We must acknowledge the evil that people do, but not let it influence us. We also must stand up when we see evil happening in the world. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” There is so much evil going on in the world, are we going to let it influence us and let it destroy our society or will the leaders who value G-d given principles of compassion and freedom stand up and do what is right?