Introduction - this portion is essentially one that requires us students to go through “basic training.” It’s hot outside. The exercises will be demanding. I hope you’re in reasonably good shape. I didn’t tell you more last week; nor will I tell you much now - for fear that you would wimp out and sneak out the back door. But, actually, you’re more than up for what we’re about to do. Take deep breaths; call upon the inner strength you have. As my property professor in law school told us one day, “no one has ever perished here.” Nor will anyone today! But do tie your boot strings tight before we begin. It’s going to be rapid fire and fast. Here we go.
Read Deuteronomy 21:10. What does this mean?
10 When you wage war against your enemies and the Lord hands them over to you and you take prisoners,
(On the surface, it clearly means when you go out into physical battle to take the land, God will make you victorious. I want to explore its deeper levels. What are the possibilities?
This is a metaphor for living as God expects. The enemies we will fight and defeat with God’s help are at one level the forces, the urges, the bad habits, the weaknesses, the proneness to the narrow straits we’ve encountered since and before Egypt that lead us to stray, lead us away from our covenant with God, that are incompatible with living in the land of promise.
The battle is the fight against these biases, desires, forces that keep us from living as God expects, as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Today’s portion includes the greatest number of mitzvoth in any, 72, and they are, I believe, here to serve as an exercise of preparedness, “military in a spiritual sense,“ if you will, to get us ready to prevail in this battle. The “captives” we take will be those of these enemies we have grappled with on the journey, and continue to grapple with in our lives. This training will help us to be spiritually and ethically, as well as physically, fit to overcome and achieve the conquest God has in mind for us.)
II. Now we will begin the basic training against the temptations and urges that are the enemy we must take captive. Ready?
Read Deuteronomy 11-14. What’s the urge we take captive here, and what does our “victory” mean?
11 if you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you fall in love with her and take her as your wife, 12 bringing her into your home, she must shave her head, cut her nails,13 remove her prisoner’s clothing, and live in your house, mourning her father and her mother for one month. After that, you may consummate the marriage. You will be her husband, and she will be your wife. 14 But if you aren’t pleased with her, you must send her away as she wishes. You are not allowed to sell her for money or treat her as a slave because you have humiliated her.
(The urge in this situation is to ravish a beautiful captive weaker woman we’ve taken captive in war. We must curb that instinct and limit the power we have. We’re not an animal, and she’s not an object. God expects us to live through a process that shows honor, respect, consideration, and decision. Although the interest in assuring that the man and woman live in God’s way and that the woman’s presumably previous pagan ways are shed is curiously not explicitly addressed, the required process may give time for this to play out.
We’ve learned about righteousness, fairness, mercy, and lovingkindness. Here we live out those principles in a very real setting, where our power and desire could easily permit our following our instinct. God says the enemy is given unto our power to control and take captive. What a wonderful place to begin our training!)
B. Read Deuteronomy 15-17. What’s the urge here that must be defeated?
15 Now suppose a man has two wives—one of them loved and the other unloved. Both wives bear children, but the oldest male is the unloved wife’s child. 16 On the day when the man decides what will go to each of his children as an inheritance, he isn’t allowed to treat his loved wife’s son as the oldest male rather than his unloved wife’s son, who is the real oldest male. 17 Instead, he must acknowledge the unloved wife’s son as the oldest male, giving to him two-thirds of everything that he owns, because that son is the earliest produce of his physical power. The oldest male’s rights belong to that son.
(The principle of duty to the first born is strongly affirmed here, though we know how complex the broader text is on this matter. Yet, the idea here is clear: the principle must outweigh our native desire to prefer the one who is the child of the preferred or favored wife. (The text does not yet show the commitment that later attaches to monogamy, but it does insist that our preferences go to the values we have about passing on legacy and living as God expects, not our biases related to our other interests.))
C. Read Deuteronomy 18-21.
18 Now if someone has a consistently stubborn and rebellious child, who refuses to listen to their father and mother—even when the parents discipline him, he won’t listen to them— 19 the father and mother will take the son before the elders of that city at its gates.20 Then they will inform the city’s elders: “This son of ours is consistently stubborn and rebellious, refusing to listen to us. What’s more, he’s wild and a drunkard.”
21 Then all the people of that town will stone him until he dies.
Remove such evil from your community! All Israel will hear about this and be afraid.
This is hard! Put a blinder on your modern eyes, and don’t read this as physical killing, but rather some killing of a deeply destructive and evil force in the child. Now what’s the urge or force that must be defeated?
(Know, first, that there’s language in the Talmud that suggests at least explicitly there never actually was such a punishment.
But, we pay attention to the text and wonder if there’s something deeper at work here, irrespective of whether this exact literal punishment was applied or not. Is there some behavior that is so outrageously bad and dangerous that we should be gravely concerned? If so, could we or should we just “let it go?” Or just be soft and merely hope things will get better? That would be easier, but the evil festers, no? It’s destructive of the child and endangers the community. Must parents not join together and seek outside help and do something to rid the dangerous force?
D. Read Deuteronomy 22:1-4.
22 Don’t just watch your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep wandering around and do nothing about it. You must return the animal to its owner. 2 If the owner doesn’t live nearby, or you don’t know who owns the animal, then you must take care of it. It should stay with you until your fellow Israelite comes looking for it, at which point you must return it to him.
3 Do the same thing in the case of a donkey. Do the same thing in the case of a piece of clothing. Do the same thing in the case of anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you end up finding. You are not allowed to sit back and do nothing about it.
4 Don’t just watch your fellow Israelite’s donkey or ox fall down in the road and do nothing about it. You must help your fellow Israelite get the animal up again.
What’s the curbed urge here and the duty we owe?
(The instinct is to keep found property and be enriched by it. One can easily think, “no one will know.” God knows! It’s not ours. We must make every effort to find the true owner, hold the property in trust and preserve it in good condition, and restore it. We are in training to re-develop our instinct, literally to come to feel ill about keeping the property without a full and devoted effort to restore it.)
E. 1. Read Deuteronomy 6-7.
6 If you come across a bird’s nest along your way, whether in a tree or on the ground, with baby birds or eggs, and the mother is sitting on the baby birds or eggs, do not remove the mother from her young. 7 You must let the mother go, though you may take the young for yourself so that things go well for you and so you can prolong your life.
What is the urge we need to confront and defeat here?
(Our appetitive desire is to take the mother bird and the young to eat to maximize our catch and take - the more, the better! But we must respect the mother’s feelings, as we would a person’s, as a fellow living creature of God’s, by showing mercy, here by letting her go before taking what remains, perhaps even foregoing both. This also shows an appreciation of unity in God’s world. Maimonides says this teaches us to anticipate the anxiety and despair of the mother bird, another living being, and to avoid acting in a cruel way that is incompatible with living in God’s way in the world.
Other possibilities: there could be an aversion to destroying the creator of this life. Or, there could be an ecological sense that destroying both the producer generation and its offspring could endanger the species.)
2. Let’s take a brief break to consider this question: Can you see the emerging theme and purpose of our “basic training?”
(Surely, we’re beginning to see in these early “skirmishes” that this is a fight against our passions, our greed, our self-interest, gluttony, power, dominion, that part of us that is pure animal, to live within the constraints and limits that God has established for a people whose destiny is to become a nation of priests living within the Divine covenant. We understand and respect the effect that our actions have on others and the world, and to begin in all of its dimensions to live true to the principles of love of neighbor. This is a fundamental battle in our lives, one in which God can make us victorious.)
F. Read Deuteronomy 8. What’s the lesson here?
8 Whenever you build a new house, you must build a railing for the roof so that you don’t end up with innocent blood on your hands because someone fell off of it.
(The instinct may be to cut corners, assume all will be well, and the money it would take to go the extra mile could be saved. On the contrary, one must be vigilant and anticipate all reasonable risks to guests and guard against them. Guarding against risk of harm in our house is a metaphor for how we must show care in our lives.)
G. Read Deuteronomy 10. What’s the instinct here that concerns us?
10 Don’t plow with an ox and a donkey together.
(The instinct is to use all the animals in the field to maximum effect, even if it means yoking different animals together for short term gain. This is not respectful to the animals in that they work at different paces and in different ways. It ends up being unproductive as well in the long term. This principle obviously applies to the treatment of human beings as well.)
H. Read Deuteronomy 23:15-16. What’s the urge that must be fought against here?
15 Don’t return slaves to owners if they’ve escaped and come to you. 16 They can stay with you: in your own community or in any place they select from one of your cities, whatever seems good to them. Don’t oppress them.
(First, it’s possible this a continuing erosion of the institution of servitude in the Bible. Our instinct is probably to close the door, avoid the trouble, or simply return the slave and rid ourselves of the bother. But, no, we should not acquiesce to the power of the owner or the system. Our duty is to the weak in need.
But, second, and more likely, this is a slave who is fleeing a master in the town that the Israelites have taken in the land. In this situation, it would be the prevention of the slave’s returning to a pagan life that would be the driving motive. The Hebrew servant is freed, after all, after six years.
Yet, there is enough uncertainty in the text to make us take notice of several possibilities.)
I. Read Deuteronomy 18. What’s the problem that must be addressed here?
18 You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God to pay any vow, because the Lord your God detests them both.
(It certainly would be advantageous to take the value and benefit from “the wage of a prostitute.” It’s money that could be “used for the good,” whatever its source. But the means matter. The source matters. An offering that is tainted is tainted, and not suitable, worse in may ways than merely a blemished offering. This is incompatible with the holiness to which we aspire.)
J. Read Deuteronomy 21. What is the instinct that worries us here?
21 When you make a promise to the Lord your God, don’t put off making good on it, because the Lord your God will certainly be expecting it from you; delaying would make you guilty.
(It’s easy to make vows. It feels good and right. But, once made, a vow is often hard to fulfill. It has costs and is nicer conceived and made than delivered. At the very least, we’re tempted to delay our fulfillment of it to a later time. We should overcome and defeat these instincts.
First, we should be careful and sober in making vows. But, once a vow is made, we should rush to fulfill it. It’s a commitment to God. If we see it that way and we value our relationship with, and duty to, God, we are anxious to proceed and turn our promise (and any value we have committed) into immediate service of God.)
K. Read Deuteronomy 25-26. What are the urges that concern us here?
24 If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you can eat as many grapes as you like, until full, but don’t carry any away in a basket. 25 If you go into your neighbor’s grain field, you can pluck ears by hand, but you aren’t allowed to cut off any of your neighbor’s grain with a sickle.
(The owner of the land would naturally prefer to lose no value, and the worker or sojourner would naturally want to take as much as possible for himself/herself. We’re taught here to come to a fair and caring result, one in which the person is supported in sustenance while working or traveling, and yet the owner is protected against excess in which more than what is needed is taken. Indeed, as the population grew, later laws limited the extent to which wanderers can come on to one’s land and take food. This balancing of interests, this curbing of the instinct to grab and take more than what is fair and appropriate, surely guides us in so many related episodes in life.)
L. Read Deuteronomy 24:6, 10-13. What’s the “enemy” here? How do we defeat it?
6 Millstones or even just the upper millstone must not be pawned, because that would be pawning someone’s livelihood.
10 When you make any type of loan to your neighbor, don’t enter their house to receive the collateral. 11 You must wait outside. The person to whom you are lending will bring the collateral to you out there. 12 Moreover, if the person is poor, you are not allowed to sleep in their pawned coat. 13 Instead, be certain to give the pawned coat back by sunset so they can sleep in their own coat. They will bless you, and you will be considered righteous before the Lord your God.
(The lender wants maximum security for a loan. The instinct is to dominate the borrower, with maximum controls, partly to assure re-payment but also perhaps to exhibit and deploy power. But the mitzvoth curb us. We can’t go anywhere near that far, by, for instance, taking collateral that prevents the debtor from doing his work.
We must respect those who are weaker. We must love our neighbor. We do so by seeing and honoring the dignity of the debtor. Our instinct is to have total dominion over and be able at any time to assure the strength of our debt or the security. It’s ours after all. But we’re limited. If the security is in the debtor’s house, which is his/hers, we can’t cross that boundary, in effect, violating his/her property interest and indeed the special space of home. If the security is a garment that keeps him/her warm at night or gives bedding, we must return it each night. This is righteousness in action. It leads to a fellow’s blessing, or at least, God’s.)
M. Read Deuteronomy 14-15. We’ve discussed this before. What enemy do we defeat here?
14 Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. 15 Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty.
(It.s tempting to hold on to our money for as long as possible. We must defeat that urge. The worker earned payment during the day, and the sun should not set without our doing our part of the deal in making payment.)
N. Read Deuteronomy 17-22. Again, we’ve covered this before. Why does Moses emphasize it here?
17 Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan. 18 Remember how you were a slave in Egypt but how the Lord your God saved you from that. That’s why I’m commanding you to do this thing.
19 Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do. 20 Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 21 Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 22 Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing.
(It’s tempting to want it all for ourselves, to maximize production, and fully “exploit our land.” This is especially so, as it relates to the weak who live in the shadows of our lives. God says, no! Pay attention to the weak, respect them, reserve resources (for which we’re only stewards of God) for them. We were strangers once ourselves, needing such help. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.)
O. Read Deuteronomy 25:1-4. What do we learn here?
1 Now two people have a disagreement and they enter into litigation and their case is decided, with the judges declaring one person legally right and the other legally liable. 2 If the guilty party is to be beaten, the presiding judge will have that person lie down and be punished in his presence—the number of blows in measure with the guilt determined.3 Give no more than forty blows. If more than that is given, your fellow Israelite would be completely disgraced in your eyes.
4 Don’t muzzle an ox while it is threshing grain.
(Punishment is in order when wrong has been done. But “over-punishment” is a wrong in itself and unjustified, whether it reflects anger, zealousness, other emotions or passions, or an excess dose of “justice.” Only sufficient punishment is allowed.)
P. Read Deuteronomy 25:13-16. What’s the urge we fight here?
13 Don’t have two different types of money weights in your bag, a heavy one and a light one. 14 Don’t have two different types of ephahs in your house, a large one and a small one. 15 Instead, you must have only one weight, complete and correct, and only one ephah, also complete and correct, so that your life might be long in the fertile land theLord your God is giving you. 16 What’s more, all who do such things, all who do business dishonestly, are detestable to the Lord your God.
(It’s so tempting to cheat when we know the chance of being caught is close to non-existent. That’s the theme here. How would a customer know if a weight is slightly off to his/her disadvantage? But God knows. This is unjust, and the injustice is compounded by the stealth nature of it. Living in covenant with others and God cannot abide this behavior; thus, the concern and prohibition are expressed in such a prominent place.
Indeed this is so serious one is not allowed even to own an inaccurate weight.)
We’ve now come virtually to the end of our exercise in basic training. What effect did it have on you? What spiritual and ethical muscle strengthening have you experienced? What lessons will you carry out with you?
(It is said that that this portion is fundamentally about the irreducible dignity and worth of the human being. The most marginal members of human society are created in the image of God and should be treated accordingly. In addition, there are limits on all of us, in believing and acting as if we stand so substantially above and beyond others or indeed our own appropriate selves that we can forget these truths and our duties to God and others.
There are lots of areas in which we learn this today: limits on the self (acquisition, greed, passion, control, power, dominion), concern for the other, awareness of ever-present sense of duty to God, a growing feeling of being bound to God’s expectations, a sense that God watches me and wants me to live as instructed, an appreciation of life and the need to show it respect and regard, an abhorrence of dishonesty and bad faith dealing, regard and care and right treatment for the weak and those in need, balance, discipline, value of tradition over current sentiment.
“Light is sown for the righteous.” Psalms 97:11. Last week we learned all about pursuing righteousness. Today we learn about what the path of the righteous looks like and how and why we walk it.
As tradition teaches, in each person’s mundane tasks, God has implanted a kernel of sacred light so that when that person performs a deed in accord with God’s hopes, one that works God’s will in the world, this releases a light that dispels the concealing darkness, and in his heart flowers a vision of the Holy One. In that moment, we are reminded of our purpose in life - to serve God. The ways we’ve studied today represent Divine counsel that attach us to God and set us on a straight path.