We often assume that the Torah is static and unchanging, and in one sense it is. The scrolls that we open in any synagogue around the world have exactly the same words written in them, and the written word of the Torah will never change. However, for thousands of years, the concept “Torah”, which means teaching, has come to include all the wisdom and teaching that comes from the five books of Moses. What many do not think about is that sometimes we “expand” the message of Torah and sometimes we “contract” it. This week’s parashah presents a perfect example of this principle.
On one hand, we hear one of the essential teachings of Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — justice with righteousness you shall pursue. This one verse has been expanded, in conjunction with many other teachings of Torah, to establish the pursuit of justice as one of the core principles of Judaism. Having been strangers in Egypt, we are called upon to have one standard of justice for stranger and citizen alike. Justice requires a standard of equity for individuals no matter their age or background; it calls upon us to have concern in particular for the underprivileged and oppressed, righting the wrongs created by human relationship and society.
On the other hand, we have one of the harshest teachings of the Torah put forward this week: the genocide of the inhabitants of the land of which we are to take possession. Tradition has contracted this passage by saying that the commandment was never fulfilled — but in our days we must constrict it even further. More than any other passage, this one calls upon us (especially in a world where too many justify their killings in the name and word of God) to reject this as a principle of Torah, whether actual or potential.
How do we get the right to expand and contract the Torah? Even if this were God’s teaching, it is quite clear that as God’s creatures we have obligations to use our minds for discernment. The Torah opens with the first human eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge — the implication being that we are responsible for our choices of good and bad, especially when it comes to expanding and contracting the respective teachings of Torah.