Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise
Today’s parsha with its cornucopia of 74 mitzvoth is chockablock with subjects as diverse as personal and interpersonal relations, economics, civil law, criminal law, personal status and war – a partial list only. But viewing the parsha as a whole, a few large themes emerge. One of them is violence against others. Another is marital and sexual relations. We will deal here with only two examples from the parsha but we will also show how they are related to other stories in the Torah and to the ethics of the Torah in general.
Violence and sexual relations both appear in the very first paragraph of our reading. We read about the Israelite man in war who sees a beautiful woman and desires her. Violence, blood, life-and-death – the ultimate aphrodisiacs – lead to a conspicuously unusual approval of licentiousness. The Israelite warrior is allowed to take the woman by force. There are, of course, stipulations and then consequences. To engage in a long term relationship with her, he has to marry her first.
But this is a problem. This marriage “solution” goes against a very basic precept of the Torah. The story of Balaam, the prophet who was hired to curse Israel and ends up blessing them, concludes with the story of the Moabite women who tempt Israelite men to worship foreign gods, and we are told time and again to beware of intermarrying with the local populace.
But the exception in our parsha is explained as simply acceptance of the fact that warriors have lusts that are stronger than a mere divine commandment, so better to ensure the welfare of these women after the fact. Something like: “You can’t fight City Hall” (unless you bribe them, of course).
The second paragraph, which is about married life, is often interpreted as a consequence of this frowned-upon marriage. In the second paragraph, a man has two wives, one he loves and the other he hates (which can be read as his Israelite wife and his booty wife from the war, or vice versa). But the firstborn is the son of the wife he hates. Nevertheless, we are told, he is obligated to give this child the rights of the firstborn (meaning a double portion) even though he was not the son of his beloved wife.
We are Torah scholars of sorts, and with a little help from the commentators, the words in this paragraph – and the commandments involved – immediately bring to mind a famous story from Bereshit.
Who had two wives, one of whom he loved and the other he hated? You are right! Yaacov. Our forefather had two wives. Rachel was the one he lusted for and Leah was the one he got first. He loved Rachel and the Torah says he loved Leah LESS – but then God sees that Leah is HATED (again, the Torah’s words). As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs and many other commentators point out, the Jacob story and our parsha are the only two places in the Bible which talk about people who are hated.
Is this criticism of Yaacov? And if it is, it is not the only criticism. Didn’t Yaacov give a double portion to his 11th son, Yosef (the elder of the two children of his beloved Rachel) and not to his firstborn Reuven from Leah (the less beloved or hated wife)?
If we look at the commandments in our parsha in light of the first four books of the Torah, we begin to see patterns emerge.
Yaacov was wrong in many of the things he did. The consequences of his actions were sometimes immediate – his favoritism toward Yosef led to sibling hatred, the selling of a brother into slavery and Yaacov nearly dying from grief. The fact that the story had a relatively happy ending, both on the personal and the national levels, does not detract from the mistakes.
But there were long-term consequences too. According to Yaacov’s final blessing of his children, Reuven was an impetuous person and from what we gather from the stories he was not much of a leader, either. But his offspring play a central role in a later event. When Korach tries to usurp Moshe’s position as leader of the nation, he is supported by three people: Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and Onn the son of Pelet, all from the tribe of Reuven.
Could it be that the snub to Reuven as firstborn was passed down in blood, words and feelings to his children and great grandchildren, and that they were still smarting from having their forefather’s princely position being given to others? Yehuda was the designated leader of the family. Yosef was viceroy in Egypt and his two sons each received an inheritance (that’s the double portion). And then Moshe and Aharon – Levites – took charge of the whole nation. Listen carefully and you can hear Reuven’s ghost pacing back and forth muttering “What about MY birthright!”
In our parsha, Moshe is setting down the law. Yes, this is what Yaacov did way back when, but those days are past, and in the future this is how you are to act (perhaps so as to obviate some unnecessary conflict in the future).
We don’t have time to go into the dozens of mitzvoth dealing with rape, divorce, false accusations, and on the other hand, the extreme measures that should be taken to maintain the dignity of each members of the nation, even the destitute. It is in light of these compassionate mitzvoth that the first story which permits warriors to rape and/or marry captive women strikes such a discordant note.
We know what violence can do to people, to the ones committing the violence no less than to those against whom the violence is directed. As we stride forward to the high holidays, soul-searching and hopefully a good new year, let us hope that the external violence that has become a part of our daily lives, in the news and in person, dissipates into less injurious feelings, and that the internal violence that we experience can be diluted and finally eliminated.
This is my last dvar torah for the 5776.
Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom