Thursday, 27 Aug 2015

Written by Danny Newman

 “When you go out to war against your enemies….” (Devarim 21:10)
The opening words of this week’s parashah did not fill me with hope. There seems to be so much war, hatred and conflict around at the moment. The last thing I wanted to do was read about it in this week’s Torah portion.

Whilst spending three weeks in Israel this summer I became increasingly aware of, and disturbed by, both the extent to which parts of Israeli society have become entrenched in militaristic thinking and the power and influence that the army and some ex-army personnel play in constructing and acting out some of the key narratives and meta-narratives that determine some of the policies being pursued by the current Israeli government.

Hope springs eternal, however, and I was both relieved and gladdened to discover that our parashah continues happily in an ethical manner by commanding the warring Israelites to deal (somewhat) humanely and compassionately with women who have been captured in war. A woman captured in this way may be taken as a wife and she is to be given a period of a month to mourn her mother and father before the victorious Israelite man is permitted to have sex with her. If he then decides that he no longer desires her, he must set her free and may neither sell her for money nor enslave her for ‘he hath had his wicked way with her’.

The Torah’s imperative to treat kindly even such a marginal member of ancient biblical society as a female war captive, comes as a healing balm against the normative discourse of demonisation of Palestinians that I experienced at times in Israel this summer both in some mainstream newspapers and in derogatory and provocative statements by some high-ranking politicians.

Perhaps that is why we need to keep coming back to Torah? This week’s parashah contains more laws than any other, and as the Etz Chaim Torah Commentary states so eloquently, “one theme is prominent: the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being.”

When it’s so easy for human beings to treat those people whom we perceive to be different from us (those who have different colour skin; who have a different sexuality; who belong to a different religious or ethnic group) as irredeemably ‘other’ and, therefore, disposable and less deserving of our empathy and kindness, thank goodness the Torah is here to remind us that all human beings are created in the image of God (b’tzelem elohim). All human beings come from the same ancestors, we are of equal value, worth and dignity. That seems to me to be the most important meta-narrative of the Jewish people, and perhaps our most important contribution to human society. And it’s a narrative we need to tell again and again and again so that we will begin to believe it and act in accordance with it.

Our parashah continues with a fascinating and eclectic range of commandments which include: the obligation to give the firstborn son his rightful inheritance, even if he is less beloved than another son; an insolent son is to be stoned to death if he defies his parents (although the rabbis later forbade this practice); a body that has been impaled for a day after execution for a capital crime must be taken down (an impaled body is an affront to the Israelite deity); lost objects are to be returned to their owners; cross-dressing is forbidden; honest weights and measures are to be used in business (God hates dishonest businesspeople); and finally, the obligation to remember how our ancient and irreversible adversary, Amalek, surprised our ancestors during their post-exodus desert march, when they were famished and tired, and smote the most vulnerable, the stragglers at the rear.

I would argue that, despite the smorgasbord of commandments set out in this parashah, the intent of these ancient directives bends towards the creation of a just and compassionate society. Sometimes it can be hard for us (post-) moderns to see this today, when so many of the rules are built around societal norms that we find abhorrent, viz. the acceptance of slavery, the subordination of women and the death penalty for adultery and extreme defiance of parents. However, in the final edited version of our Torah text, I intuit an impulse that is rooted in the awareness and unabashed commitment to the principle that all human beings are made in the divine image.

On a deeper level, our parashah also invites us to cultivate our inner spiritual lives. The first two commands prevent us from acting on our (unhealthy or unwise) desires rather than simply giving in to them. We cannot rape a captured woman. In order to have sex with her, she must be brought into the home, given time to mourn and she is to be accorded the honour of becoming a wife. Even if we love our younger son more, the oldest must still be treated fairly and given what is due to him. We may experience a life of cravings and attachments, but we are called upon to learn and to practice delayed gratification. This too is necessary if we are to build a world of lovingkindness, justice and compassion.

Our relationship with Amalek can also be viewed through the lens of spiritual development. For the rabbis, Amalek is understood figuratively as our experience of doubt. The gematria of Amalek is the same as the Hebrew for doubt, Safek. Amalek attacked those who were tired, hungry and weak. In the same way, we acknowledge that there are times when we doubt, when we are exhausted by the demands made upon us by life and by our tradition’s call to bring ourselves more honestly and more fully into relationship with life. Sometimes our lives can seem like an endless wilderness and we doubt our ability to continue on the journey to a promised land. At these times we can take refuge in the strength, beauty and wisdom of the practices of our spiritual tradition. The commandments become an invitation for us to see beyond our own limited egoistic needs. We are called to serve something else, something bigger than and something beyond the tyranny of our own sense of separate self. At that point, we recognise that we are always already connected to universal consciousness and the great chain of being. The Promised Land is, in fact, right here, right now, in this moment. 

Student rabbi Danny Newman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.