Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, 14th Elul 5775, 29th August 2015,
War and peace, hearth and home, borrowing and lending, home building and non-cruelty to animals – these are some of the subjects addressed by the 74 mitzvoth in today’s parsha, 12% of all 613 mitzvoth. In the first paragraph of the parsha, an Israelite warrior takes a beautiful captive woman as his wife. In the next paragraph we read about a man who has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he hates. If the firstborn is the son of the hated wife, he nevertheless has to give him the rights of the firstborn. And the third paragraph describes how we should deal with a child who refuses to obey his parents.
The commentaries connect the three issues: a man takes a wife out of lust, ends up hating her, and the offspring, who naturally feel the enmity between the parents, become unruly walking disasters.
But a deeper examination of the first subject reveals a much more cardinal problem. A God-fearing Israelite warrior is forbidden to marry a non-Hebrew woman from the country, lest she turn him toward idolatry as in the case of Moab. So how can this chapter of the Torah suddenly sanction such a clearly forbidden act?
The main answer that emerges is that human nature cannot be denied. Don’t legislate a law that cannot be enforced (our Knesset could learn something here). And in a time of war, of high emotion, of blood and danger and killing, the temperament of even a mild-mannered person undergoes changes that cannot be controlled. And so instead of trying to impose a prohibition that would inevitably lead to sin, or allowing the warrior to act brutally, the Torah prescribes a series of actions to allow him to come to his senses.
The warrior must take the woman home, where they live not as man and wife for a month. Her head must be shaved and she has a month to mourn for her dead parents, spouse and whoever else perished at the hands of the person who wants to take her. Lust and daily life must come into direct conflict. If he still wants her after he’s seen her at her worst, she becomes his wife. And if not, he cannot sell her, he has to give her freedom as recompense for all the suffering he has put her through.
What lessons we have here. Know the object of your lust and determine whether it’s what you really want. You are gung-ho for a change in life style. Try it out first, see if reality coincides with the idyllic picture that attracted you. Know thy enemy, know thyself.
Second, when we impose ourselves on someone else’s life, especially if that person is in an inferior position, we have an obligation to not make things worse for them. Like doctors, do no harm.
Third, and this is something that we only appreciate later in life: what we do has consequences, including severe havoc being loosed on society.
Much of the parsha offers mitzvoth to avoid havoc in society. We have laws about lending and borrowing, about divorce – actually, the only mention of divorce in the Torah and thus the source of many of the woes women face today in rabbinical courts. We have laws about returning lost objects and building railings on roofs to prevent accidents. And towards the end we are instructed to be honest in business dealings, to have weights that are really honest.
But then, in the last paragraph, the last three sentences, we are suddenly thrown back into a different world. A world of revenge, against Amalek. This is the Parshat Zachor we read on the Shabbat before Purim. In it we are told to remember to erase the memory of Amalek. And the conundrum: if we remember, we can’t erase the memory, and if we erase the memory, we can’t remember. But the real problem is why is this paragraph stuck in here? We’ve come so far from the subject!
Because it is inserted here, a few modern commentaries try to link Zachor to the other mitzvoth in the parsha. The key to this link, accept it or not, is the premise that Amalek is no longer a viable entity. According to Rabbi A.R. Korotkin, it is a symbol of evil, the symbol of those who would do us ill. But the fact is that much of the ill we suffer is caused by ourselves, in terms of our desires, our motivations and our subsequent actions. In this way, we become our own Amalek (as Pogo said: We have met the enemy and it is us). Let there be no doubt, there are people out there who want to hurt us, to kill us, to make us suffer for whatever warped reasons they have. But we help too.
When we allow our own urges to knowingly engage in incorrect behaviors, when we engage in activities that divert us from the straight and narrow, we are acting as our own Amalek. Like the warrior, we have to control our urges and thus eradicate the Amalek in us and remember its effects.
It’s not easy. We live in a very violent neighborhood. Our country has either been at war or under the threat of war for most of its years, and the cumulative tensions are increasingly taking their toll on all levels.
Here’s a mundane example. This week I attended a house committee meeting where two people were shouting at each other about matters that simply did not deserve such decibels. And you realize that they aren’t arguing about house matters. He has a high tension job with the police and she is always ready to attack. A house meeting was in a flash turned into a sublimated battlefield.
What would you do if one of them had yelled at you at the meeting? Cry? Run out? Yell back? If you have presence of mind and self-control, the best response is to answer quietly, courteously. Either the other person will calm down, or will go ballistic. But you have made the effort. And that’s all we can really do. We have no influence over the big things. We have to try to impose rationality on our own environment and keep it Amalek-free, from without and within.
This reminds me of a Rudyard Kipling parody I heard long ago: If everyone around you is losing his head and you are keeping yours – perhaps you don’t understand the situation.
Or perhaps we do understand and this is our way of trying to bring normalcy back into fashion, one muted shout at a time. And if so, more power to us.