This Torah portion covers an array of commandments for a variety of circumstances, from marriage and relationships to caring for the less fortunate. Some of the commandments pertain to man’s relationship with God, but most of them address the relationship between fellow humans. Like the rest of the book of Deuteronomy, this is part of Moses’s farewell address to the people, and in it he touches on a number of events which happened during their sojourn in the desert, including the war with Amalek.
A Law for Every Circumstance
Our portion begins with a series of scenarios, listing what the God-fearing Israelite must do in each case. The first of these is a situation in which a soldier comes across a beautiful captive during war. If he wishes to take her, he must first allow her to mourn her family for a month, shave her hair and grow her nails, and if he still wants her for a wife, he may marry her. Another case involves an unhappy marriage — even if one’s firstborn is the child of the unloved wife, the father must afford that son all the rights of the firstborn, and may not transfer those rights to the son of his favorite wife. A rebellious son must be brought before the court and stoned, and the corpse of a man executed by the court may not be left hanging overnight, out of dignity.
If one finds a lost animal or item, one must make every effort to return it to its owner, even if it means keeping it for him until he returns to look for it. One must assist if one sees another person’s animal struggling. Men and women may not wear each other’s clothing, and if one wishes to gather eggs or baby birds from a nest, one must first send away the mother bird. A roof requires a fence, so nobody climbs up and falls off, and different species of crops may not be planted together, while different species of animals may not be made to work together. Finally, fringes must be tied onto the corners of any four-cornered garment.
When it comes to the prohibition of taking an egg without first chasing away the mother bird, the Israel Bible points out that it is just one example of how God commands us to behave with sensitivity and compassion. If this is how we are expected to behave towards animals, how much more so are we required to behave towards each other with caring and concern.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think different species may not be grown or worked together?
Some Laws Regarding Marriage
The next group of laws Moses outlines relate to marriage. The first deals with a husband who comes to despise his wife and accuses her of not being a virgin when they married. If her parents produce signs of her virginity to the elders of the city, the husband is required to keep her as his wife and may not divorce her. If his accusations are found to be true, however, the wife is stoned.
If a man and woman commit adultery, both are stoned.
If a man lies with a betrothed woman, both are killed, but if the incident takes place outside an inhabited area, she is spared, because it is assumed she cried for help and nobody heard her to rescue her. If the woman was not betrothed, he must pay her father for his actions and marry the girl, keeping her as his wife forever.
Moses then lists a series of forbidden marriages: a man may not marry the wife of his father; a bastard child cannot marry a member of the congregation of Israel, nor can an Ammonite or Moabite, or a man with a crushed or severed organ; and a convert from the nation of Edom or Egypt may only marry into the nation after three generations.
The Israel Bible relates that despite the abuse suffered by the Israelites during the slavery in Egypt, God commands us not to treat them the same way. We must have compassion for all His children, and the Torah warns us against rejoicing at the suffering of an enemy. For this reason, every Passover, when the Jewish people celebrate their salvation from the hands of their Egyptian oppressors, they spill symbolic drops of wine from their cups to indicate that their joy is diminished due the suffering endured by their enemies.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the Ammonites and Moabites are treated differently by the Torah than the Egyptians? Why might their offenses be considered more serious than anything the Egyptians did to the Israelites?
Several Laws for a Holy People
The next lengthy stretch of the portion deals with a variety of brief laws. We have broken it up into two sections for manageability.
To keep the camp holy, anyone impure due to a nocturnal emission must sit outside the camp until he is purified. Among a soldier’s equipment, he must also keep a shovel to bury his bodily waste.
If a slave escapes his master, you may not turn him in.
Promiscuity and prostitution is forbidden, and the wages of improper behavior may not be brought to the Temple.
One may not charge interest from his fellow Israelite, though it is permitted to charge interest to a foreigner.
If you make a vow to contribute something to God, you must pay up on time. It is preferable to offer your gift without swearing, because if something interferes you will not be held accountable by God for sinning. In fact, any oath taken must be fulfilled in a timely fashion.
A worker is permitted to eat from the produce he is reaping for the landowner as he goes along, but may not harvest a portion for himself.
If a marriage ends in divorce and the wife remarries, she becomes forbidden to her first husband, even if the second marriage ends in another divorce or widowhood.
A bridegroom shall not go out to war in the first year of his marriage.
A millstone may not be taken as surety for a pledge, as it is needed to sustain the owner’s life.
Kidnapping is a capital offense.
Moses warns the people to beware the tzaraat affliction by following the teachings of the priests and Levites. He reminds the people of what happened to Miriam in the desert as a cautionary tale.
Finally, Moses tells the people to treat a borrower with dignity: the lender may not enter his home to take collateral, nor may he hold that collateral overnight if the borrower is poor and in need of the item.
Points to Ponder
Is there a common thread among these laws? Why do you think Moses groups these commandments together in his speech (remember, the whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s farewell address to the people)?
For more information on the tzaraat affliction, see the portions of Tazria and Metzorah. For more on the story of Miriam in the desert, see Numbers 12.
More Laws for a Holy People
It is forbidden to take advantage of the weakest segments of society; likewise, a worker’s wages must be paid on time.
Fathers and sons may not be held accountable for each other’s actions.
You may not pervert the justice of the convert or the orphan, nor may you take the garment of a widow as security, because you were once a slave in Egypt and God has redeemed you.
During the harvest, you must leave behind any forgotten bundles of grain for the underprivileged, and likewise you must leave them some of your olive and grape crops. Again, this is because you were once a slave in Egypt.
The Israel Bible notes that in describing the process of removing the fruit from the olive tree, the verse says “when you beat your olive tree,” as olive trees were harvested by beating the branches with a stick, causing the olives to fall to the ground. According to the Sages, this hints to the blessing of abundance in the Land of Israel. There will be so much produce that the farmers will only need to harvest what falls off with the beating of the tree branches; they will not need to bother to climb a ladder in order to reach what was left at the top. What remains on the tree is left for the poor and needy.
In the event of a court case where the judgment is lashes, the maximum punishment is forty stripes.
When threshing with an ox, the animal may not be muzzled.
If a married man dies childless, his brother who dwells with him must marry his widow and produce an heir on his behalf. If he refuses, the widow must bring him before the court to perform the ceremony of release: the widow takes his shoe and spits before him, proclaiming, “So is done to the man who will not build the house of his brother.”
If two men are fighting, and the wife of one grabs the other’s manhood during the altercation, her hand must be cut off.
One must keep honest weights and measures.
Points to Ponder
Here the Torah tells us that fathers and sons may not be punished for each other’s actions, yet in Exodus 34:7, God says He “will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.” How do you think these statements can be reconciled?
The portion ends with a reminder of the battle with Amalek before the giving of the Torah, recorded initially in Exodus 17. The people are commanded to remember what they did to the nation, attacking them from behind when they were weak and tired, showing no fear of God. Moses instructs the people that when God has given them respite from their enemies around and they have settled in the land, they must wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Yet, he exhorts them, they must not ever forget.
The Israel Bible reminds us that this is one of three commandments which the Israelites are meant to fulfill only after successfully conquering the Land of Israel. Amalek, the Israel Bible explains, is more than a nation; it represents an ideology antithetical to that for which the nation of Israel stands. Therefore, once they are settled, the people are to wage war against Amalek and their belief system. It is during Saul’s time, in 1 Samuel 15, that God calls up the young king to fulfill this obligation. Unfortunately, Saul does not follow God’s command to the letter, and is subsequently removed from the throne by God, clearing the way for David to become king.
Points to Ponder
Based on the text (here and in Exodus 17), what do you think is the heretical belief system which Amalek represents?
For more information about the war with Amalek, see the portion of Beshalach.