Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

August 25, 2001 - 5761

Prepared by Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
Temple Sinai, Hollywood, FL

Edited by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Deut. 16:8-21:9; Hertz Chumash, p. 820
Triennial Cycle III: Deut. 19:14-21:9; Hertz Chumash, p. 829
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12; Hertz Chumash, p. 835

(Deut. 16:18-17:7) The commandment to appoint judges and officers to keep order, and a warning against setting up a pillar for idol worship. The punishment for idolators: death by stoning.

(17:8-20) The command to establish a central, higher court to deal with cases too difficult for local courts. The laws concerning the king, his privileges and obligations.

(18:1-8) The tribe of Levi, priests and Levites, have no territory, and therefore must be supported by dues from the rest of the people. The rights of the Levites who live outside of Jerusalem.

(18:9-22) The prohibition of sorcery, with a warning to listen to the true prophet and punish the false prophet.

(19:1-13) Laws concerning the accidental killer and the cities of refuge.

(19:14) The prohibition of removing a landmark.

(19:15-21) Deliberately false witnesses: their punishment is whatever their false testimony would have brought upon their intended victim.

(20:1-20) Laws for the conduct of war.

(21:1-9) The laws of the beheaded heifer which were practiced in response to finding a murdered person in the open country between settlements.

Theme 1: Military Exemptions

Then the officers shall address the troops, as follows: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her."The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say; "Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his. (Deut. 20:5-8)

  1. All such persons, after hearing the words of the priest concerning the regulations governing those who are required to go to war - may return to their homes, where they are to send supplies of water and food, and where they keep the roads in repair. Rabbi Akiva said: "Fearful and faint-hearted is to be understood literally, that he is unable to stand in the line of battle and look at a drawn sword. Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: "Fearful and faint-hearted means that he is fearful because of the transgressions he committed. That is why the Torah gave him the opportunity to return for the other reasons. (Talmud Sotah 43b-44a)
  2. The section of admonition appears in the Torah portion of Ki Tavo. The Torah speaks of three misfortunes there (28:30) which will befall Israel, and these three experiences are precisely those mentioned in our chapter regarding exemption from military service. One is the betrothal of a woman who is then taken as a wife by another; the second is regarding one who builds a house and another man ultimately dwells in it; and the third speaks of a man who plants a vineyard and another man eventually eats its fruit. Sforno explains that the reason these men are excused is because if one of them were to fall in battle, it would be viewed as the fulfillment of the terrible admonition recorded later in Deuteronomy and would arouse fear, dismay, and panic in the hearts of the Jewish army. Hence, it is far better that these soldiers be excused, for the sake of the morale of the other soldiers. (R. Pelcovitz, "Sforno: Commentary, p. 929)

Discussion Sparks:

Do these verses apply to military campaigns today in Israel? Does it give an exemption for those who study Torah? What are the responsibilities of those who do not go and fight? How do these statements apply to us as we "go out to do battle" each and every day? What can we learn about every day ethics from these verses?

Theme 2: "I Speak For The Trees"

When in a war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? (Deut 20:19)

  1. The Hebrew word Ki here has an interrogative meaning: "Really?" Is the tree of the field a person who is being besieged by you? Should it suffer famine and thirst just like the inhabitants of the city? Why then should you cut it down? (Rashi on verse 19)
  2. In my opinion, we have no need of all this. But this is the meaning: compare "for you may eat them and you shall not cut it down for the tree is man's life" to "for he takes a man's life to pledge" that is, he takes in pledge something on which man depends for his livelihood. (Ibn Ezra)
  3. These two opinions reflect not only divergent grammatical approaches to the text, they inevitably lead to actual differences in meaning and implication. According to the first explanation, the ordinance is inspired by compassion for whatever G-d has created... According to the second explanation, the ordinance is motivated by considerations of human welfare. (Nehama Leibowitz; "Studies in Devarim"; World Zionist Organization; p. 196-197)

Discussion Sparks:

Why do we have these laws to preserve trees? Are trees important only because of their utility to humans or because they are part of G-d's creation? Is conservation and ecology an imperative because it would make life difficult for humans if there were no trees (think of the future medications and cures that would be lost if the rain forest disappears) or are they important because they have as much right to be on this planet as we do (we are destroying all that G-d has made)? Which reason resonates with you? Which reason would most inspire people to recycle, reuse and not waste our precious resources?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016