One of the major themes in this week’s parasha is justice and fair treatment, the purpose of which is to maintain the bonds of brotherhood within the community and purge it of any evil. A continually rebellious son is to be put to death, a woman taken captive is not to be treated as a slave, you must look out for your brother’s possessions, adulterers and rapists are to be put to death, you shall not take interest from your brother and many other commandments. I hope you are all reading the parasha and studying it intently because there is much more in there than my short commentaries deal with.
Several of the commands seem rather harsh, however. A virgin who is raped becomes the wife of the man and he cannot divorce her, just like the man who brings a false accusation against his wife. A mamzer is never allowed to enter the congregation of G-d, nor is the Moabite or Amorite. These things do not seem, on the surface, very ‘fair’. The child born of an outlawed union or the child of a Moabite did not choose to be born of such parents. The woman did not, in most cases, choose such a man but he is stuck with her forever. Why are such people bound for their lives in their circumstances?
I believe one of the lessons we learn from this is the fact that there are consequences to our actions beyond our own little world. In our western society, we have done everything we can to remove the consequences of our actions. Our government has attempted, as much as possible, to legislate our safety. We take pills to remove the consequences of some or our actions and the last thing we want to do is accept responsibility when the consequences catch up to us. We blame, we sue. And when we engage in any form of risky behavior, we do not think about it’s impact on anyone beyond ourselves. ‘It’s my life, I’ll do with it what I want’; and another person justifies their life as an individual island.
G-d has never looked at things this way. Everything one does has consequences not just for him but also for the rest of the community. When a man brings an accusation against his wife, he had better be really sure he’s right because if he is not, he will be stuck with a bitter woman whose trust he broke for the rest of his life. When two people who are not allowed to be in a romantic relationship begin to gravitate to one another, they better realize that the consequences are not just theirs but on any innocent children they may produce. We all know that some of the risky behaviors we engage in have consequences for our larger society in costs, insurance and litigation. Innocent lives are ruined and people are condemned to poverty or worse because of the choices their parents made. And we, as individual Nazarenes, have the eyes of all the people we know on us and the interactions we have with people, the words we say and the example we set have consequences for our congregational community and the impression that the larger community around us has.
G-d wants us to think about everything we do and say. There are no idle words, there are no private actions, there are no ‘victimless crimes’ in the world as G-d sees it. We need to think ahead and weigh every word and deed and take everything into account we can so as not to negatively impact our community. It takes work but it is what G-d demands of us because one of the things that makes us human is the ability to make choices and for those choices we are held accountable.
This weeks portion contains a section that tells us a lot about how to relate to our brothers and sisters in community. It shows that G-d’s answer to Cain’s question “am I my brother’s keeper?” is unequivocally yes, even if you have no idea who your brother is. This area of Torah describes the type of things that Yahushua called the ‘weightier matters’ of Torah. As Ya’akov the talmidim and leader of the early community said, how can we say we love YHVH whom we have not seen if we cannot love our brother whom we have seen.
What this section of Torah requires of us is what may be called a ‘community consciousness’, an awareness that we are all responsible for one another. On a p’shat (literal) level, this applies to our possessions. There is no such thing as ‘finder’s keepers losers weepers’ in the community of Israel. We have an obligation to do what we can to find the owner of a lost item and return it. If we see our brother is in need of assistance we have a duty to help in whatever way we can. It requires a rethinking of our western, and particularly American, individualism. We have in our culture, lost the sense of obligation to the community. Too easily we have walked away from someone in need of assistance. Today we let the state take care of the poor and elderly. We pay our taxes and wash our hands of our obligation. We have too few willing to stop and assist a stranded motorist or walk an elderly person across the street. Chivalry is dead, I’ll pay someone else to do it.
What is required is a change in the way of thinking about our possessions, specifically, and about other people, generally. Instead of ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in yours’ we need to develop the mindset that we are all responsible for one another's things. We now have the idea that I am responsible for my things and if you have a problem, I have a responsibility for yours as well. When we hear of a problem, our first response wouldn't be ‘oh, that’s too bad’ but ‘that’s terrible, is there anything I can do to help?’ As the community grows, it’s ability to meet the needs of everyone in it will grow. But that only works if we are all willing to change our mindset and see our brother’s difficulties as our own responsibility. It is simply living out the parable of the good Samaritan. Nothing, not even religious duty, takes priority over the welfare of our brother.
On a spiritual level, the essential nature of this is even more apparent. As a community we are in many ways, only as strong as our weakest link. Remember the story of Achan? (Joshua 7) He was disobedient and brought death and defeat to the entire camp. The power of G-d working in our midst is dependent upon every individual. If any one of us has hidden sin, or even obvious sin, we bring the community down with us. That is why we cannot just put our show on for shabbat or special occasions and live as we desire the rest of the week. That kind of life quenches the power and presence of G-d in our midst. it ruins it for everyone else. It hinders the community from advancing. Our community is a web of interaction. Something cannot happen to one part of the community that does not affect the rest. Therefore we need to be constantly mindful of ourselves to make sure we are advancing and we need to be aware of our brother to ensure he is with us. We cannot leave anyone behind because we will not advance past their place. Be aware and grab the hand of your brother so we can all march forward in unity and victory.
This parasha contains more individual mitzvot than any other so there are plenty of topics to discuss. What we are going to look at is marriage and the treatment of women in this section, for there are several commands related to this topic. One of the most interesting is the capture of a woman in battle. If in the course of Israel's battles, a man sees a woman among the spoils and wants her, he must go through this period of shaving her head, waiting thirty days and then making her his wife. And if he does not want her after a time, he must let her go free, he cannot sell her.
First, let’s look at the background. First, we have a soldier who has been away from home for a long time. His passions are aroused in the heat of battle and the things that were done to captives in the ancient world were horrible, particularly to the women. This command is first and foremost a protection of their dignity as human beings. They may not be Israelites but they are made in the image of G-d and deserve the respect that comes with that. The Torah does not allow for a teaching of racial (or even moral) superiority of the Jews.
The second thing is a protection for the impulsiveness of the soldier. Look at Deut 21:14 “but if you did not want her”, past tense. The Torah is saying that he did not really want her in the first place, not that he found fault with her later. It was an impulsive decision on his part, he made the decision with his hormones and not his head. The woman cannot be made to suffer for such a decision so she cannot be sold into slavery. The Torah also goes to great lengths to make sure that before he marries her, he is doing do with his head and not impulsively. He must take away her beauty by shaving her head, letting her be unkempt and putting her in mourning clothes. He must interact with her for a month in his house. This means his wife will have a say in the matter, if he is already married. He may take her as his wife after he has had time to think about it.
Finally, it is a protection for the family. Immediately following this section is several commandments regarding family dynamics, particularly in a polygamous family. The Torah allows polygamy but this section makes it clear that it is warning against it. If a man had one wife before he took this woman from the captives, he now had to consider these things. First, if she bore him a son, even though he has grown to dislike her, and that son is firstborn, he must have the rights of the firstborn. If the son of the woman of captivity is rebellious, he must be put to death. It could very well be that a woman taken in such a manner will harbor a grudge and poison the mind of her children and the household. Later in the parasha it deals with adultery and other family related sins which may become part of an Israelite family if a man brings in a woman who is not familiar with or enamored with the teachings of YHVH and Torah from her youth.
The big picture is that when we make decisions, particularly decisions that affect our families, we must make them with the utmost care and foresight. We must take all things into account, including the people inside and outside the family it may affect. The Torah provides warnings for those who would be impulsive, they will suffer the consequences. That is why self control is the mark of a godly person.
In this week’s parasha we are going to do some exploring into the nature of Torah itself. Often we view Torah as a changeless document that we do our best to fit our lives into. Although it was written to a people whose culture, language, lifestyle and worldview are completely unlike the society we live in today, there are those individuals and groups that attempt to apply every aspect of Torah they can and long for those they can’t. Their dress, mannerisms and unbending intolerance for those who are not so enlightened/strict/holy as themselves often mark such people. Because there is so much of Torah that is beyond our ability or our sensibilities, such people, like the Pharisees of old, must adapt it as they see fit. Questions of shabbat observance, to wear techelet or not, how far to take kashrut, what calendar to follow, who to associate with are all decided on the basis of convenience, tradition or some form of common sense because the original intent, understanding and the circumstances that surrounded it have been lost for millennia.
The question that may be asked, however, is ‘was Torah ever applied this way in the Bible and was it even intended to be so?’ As much as those of messianic persuasion (for lack of a better term) like to say that Torah is teaching and not law, those of us that take it seriously have treated it as a strict teaching that cannot be broken without dire consequences. Our view of God is that of a stern father who rewards those who toe the line handsomely either in this world or in the world to come, or strikes with misfortune those who do not follow in his ways, however interpreted. But was this the view that Moshe and the Israelites, the judges, kings and prophets had? The Tenack would appear to make a pretty good case to answer ‘no’ to that question.
Look at our parasha. The beginning of our parasha describes the treatment of sons born to two different wives. The firstborn son, no matter what the husband’s opinion of his mother or him, is to get a double portion of the inheritance. Yet at God’s instruction, every one of the patriarchs violated this principle as did David. Speaking of David, 21:22 says a man who commits a sin worthy of death shall be put to death. In the Torah both adultery (22:22) and murder are such offenses yet God’s prophet Nathan said God forgave him and did not require his blood. The Torah says that a Moabite shall not enter the congregation YHVH for eternity yet Ruth was an ancestor of both David and the Messiah. The final words of our parasha end with the statement that the name of Amelek is to be removed from under heaven yet it is contained in the most widely read book on the planet. Something here does not make sense.
We have a couple of options. God changes his mind a lot which, admittedly, he is described as doing many times in the Torah. A similar answer would be that God is arbitrary, He does not always mean what he says. Even worse would be to postulate that God plays favorites. David, for example, as a powerful, hand picked king, is given a ride when others wouldn’t be. Most of us are a lot more comfortable with a God who does not change, a God we can depend on to do and say the same things consistently, a God that can be counted on to be steadfast. God is this but not perhaps the way we normally think of it. Instead of looking at the Torah as some monolithic, unchangable law for all of mankind given at one point in time to a single group of people, perhaps we can look at the Torah as an eternal set of principles that find different modes of expression in every generation. The Torah that Avraham kept was, in principle, the Torah of Moshe but it’s expression was different. For example, Avraham planted a grove of trees near his altar, a practice prohibited by Moshe. Even the Torah of Moshe given on Sinai and in Devarim is different. The reason for Shabbat in Shemot is the creation, in Devarim it is the redemption from Egypt. The Torah is Law in the sense that it’s principles are unchangeable throughout time because those principles emanate from God Himself. These principles are no different than physical principles like gravity. But the expression of those principles changes with circumstances and times and cultures. Our objective therefore is not to try to go back into the distant past and try to become something we know very little about. Our aim is to draw close to God so we can understand the principles and then apply them in our day and time so we express the truth of God in our world.