Parshat Ki Tisa: A taste of the World to come


The Jewish movements that changed the face of Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries raised serious concerns about the nature of the Torah and how it stands the test of time. Many of the mitzvot of the Torah, for example, are not applicable in our day and age – highlighted by the lack of a Temple in Jerusalem.

Some mitzvot are simply not observed – the mitzvah of the eved ivri (Jewish indentured servant), amah ivriya (Jewess maidservant), yibum (levirate marriage), for example – because our society has evolved in such a way that these are quite strange.

We also have a difficult time swallowing the nature of the mitzvah to wipe out Amalek. While there are enemies of the Jewish people who exhibit Amalek-like qualities, this does not make them Amalekites. As such, I, for one, am glad that we cannot identify true Amalekites and are not subject to the mitzvah of destroying them.

There is a passage in Ki Tisa which is difficult to explain to the modern Jew, and to a world that shies away from the notion that we have the right to administer capital punishment. To be sure, the Torah makes capital punishment very difficult to administer. The Torah also did not create a prison system. Punishment was carried out immediately to serve as a deterrent and was practiced at minimum expense, quickly, with no attention paid to a concern of “causing undue pain and suffering.” It was done as humanely as possible – very forward thinking for its time.

While capital punishment is much easier to understand when someone has committed murder, how do we understand it in the context of – “Six days you shall work, the seventh day is the Sabbath – it is holy to God. Whoever does ‘melakha’ on this day will be put to death” (Shmot 31:15)?

The Torah even describes a case when an individual who gathered wood on the Sabbath was put to death. (Bamidbar 15:32-36)

Of course, this is not something we pay any attention to now – in the sense that we would never ever put someone who does “melakha” on the Sabbath to death. We might, however, explain – as we do for all laws in the Torah that carry a death punishment in their depiction (i.e. hitting or cursing one’s parents (see Shmot 21:15,17)), that these are very serious offenses, not to be taken lightly.

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