Ki Teitzei 2021: The Mitzvot of Harm Reduction

The mitzvot of parashat Ki Teitzei paint a picture of a world unredeemed, and a people seeking justice everywhere they look. How can we learn from the values implicit to these mitzvot, and where do they guide us today?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, is at first appearances a grab bag of mitzvot. Ranging from how to treat those who are captured in war to how to deal with a wayward son, to how to properly retrieve eggs from a hen, some of the most universal and timeless are thrown together with many that may seem repugnant to modern sensibilities. But if we peer underneath the hood at the unifying principle that drives these mitzvot, they give us a picture of a society striving to find Divine footing, one we should learn from.

One of the most striking mitzvot of this portion, includes rules as to how to properly retrieve eggs from a mother bird, reading: If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Instead, chase the mother away, and take only the young.

The medieval sage, Moshe ben Nachman, or Ramban, teaches us that this commandment is not merely to protect the bird from trauma, (which he says it also is), but also to teach us how to refine our souls, and to move us away from evil. Implied in this interpretation is that our world isn’t perfect.

This mitzvah isn’t assuming a Divine plan guiding everything automatically- If it were, a bird wouldn’t care at all whether we took her eggs or not, or we wouldn’t even desire them in the first place. Instead it’s assuming all of the chaotic weal and woe  we still experience today. Underneath our Torah portion’s mitzvot is a goal: Harm reduction.

In our society today, harm reduction is an approach to policies and law which takes into account humanity, and the way in which peoples’ social contexts lead them to behaviors that can be dangerous. Rather than try to punish or ban acts and people from existence, it focuses on creating social and physical infrastructure to mitigate the most harmful possible outcomes. To many, this is radical. Perhaps this is an issue of the contemporary world in which we often let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

The movement for harm reduction finds its roots in the most oppressed of our society, who are often the most impacted by laws that govern these sorts of behaviors. It focuses on alleviating harm that behaviors can cause, rather than the behaviors themselves, and rather than condemn, shame, or punish it provides new, healthy, and positive pathways away from harm. 

The mitzvot of our portion, and not just the one protecting the bird, are an ancient form of harm reduction. In a society where you seek only the perfect, there would be no room to talk about war outside of banning it; or animal rights outside of strict, universal veganism; or the responsibilities we have to our neighbors outside of complete altruism. But we see the complex acknowledgment of these social dynamics play out in our Torah with an eye towards accepting the difficulties and ugliness in the world, while creating a buffer to make sure that the harm being done against those with the least power is mitigated.

If our ancient Israelite ancestors were able to grasp this concept, and weave it into the very fabric of society, so deeply that even how they collected eggs messaged to them how to behave writ large we ought to be able to as well. But, we often fall short. We have all seen in the news over the past week ongoing developments in Afghanistan as our military departed and the Taliban gained control. It is clear to me that our own government, our own military, when attempting to separate from this 20 year occupation, failed to reduce harm. Rather than taking responsibility for the power our country has wielded for decades in the region, that power was used to simply create a vacuum, placing the most vulnerable people in harm’s way.

Our Torah, the core source for our values as Jews, teaches us that we must, at all cost, reduce the harm that happens in this imperfect world, and as Americans, we bear a level of responsibility for the outcome in Afghanistan. Certainly there was and is no silver bullet for ending the war in Afghanistan in peace, but merely washing our hands of it and allowing the horrors of the Taliban to sweep over the country was not the only option, and did not reduce harm. As Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS recently said, “The tragedy is the United States had 20 years to plan for what we are witnessing in Afghanistan, but failed to do so.”

That same institution, with whom our congregation has partnered in the past, has resources to help us live up to the highest ideals of our Torah with regard to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan - please visit for more information. The values that drove our ancient ancestors still drive us, and HIAS, today. May we find, in our day, the same Divine inspiration that led to these ancient mitzvot, May we use them to refine our souls and distance us from evil; to reduce the harm that is done in our name, and to never stop striving for that day when God’s name will be One, and humanity will be One.