This week, we read from the Parasha Ki Teizei. What sets this portion apart from all the others is the sheer number of laws contained therein. 72 by most counts. Many of them cover a wide range of topics, but a few are dedicated to a specific and hopefully not often encountered circumstance.
It is usually not a good idea to set rules of behaviour or make procedures during a crisis. Creating those standards requires not only careful thought, but a clear idea of how those rules will reflect your identity. When I used to volunteer on an ambulance 20 years ago in Manhattan, we studied hours upon hours on what we do during the variety of emergencies we could theoretically be called to handle. While it was impossible to adequately prepare for all eventualities, the ground rules and basic principles were laid out and rehearsed until we would react on instinct. In this way, when we did arrive at an emergency, we had certain protocols to follow without having to think, while we evaluated the situation and stabilised it.
Our tradition believes also in being prepared in the most trying of circumstances: warfare. Many rules are set out in this week’s parasha, the rabbis took those and expanded them to encompass the rules of war that a theoretical Jewish army would have to follow. War is a time when our primal urges could take over from our rational intellect and allow us to completely forgo any and all inhibitions. Our tradition is telling in a clear and loud voice, that no matter what the situation, there are ALWAYS principles that we must adhere to. Our identity must always remain intact, even in the chaos of war. We cannot allow ourselves to lose our humanity if we engage in combat. For there is no return from a descent to that level of barbarity.
For that reason, the rules of conduct are set out before us, to give us a guide, a limit, a control. The rabbis understood how easy it could be to wantonly destroy, pillage, or murder in the name of victory. They insisted that these rules are the basis of how we are to behave during peace, and that they were to be studied and made a part of the army’s everyday routine, so that the army would know who they were and define themselves positively, not by the actions of others.
Let us strive to know ourselves and what we represent, so when that moment comes when we must act, it will be according to the principles that define who we are.