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Torah Sparks

September 6, 2003

Annual Cycle: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 (Hertz, p. 840; Etz Hayim, p. 1112)
Triennial Cycle 2: Deuteronomy 23:8-24:13 (Hertz, p. 847; Etz Hayim, p. 1123)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10 (Hertz, p. 857; Etz Hayim, p. 1137)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: The Primacy of Ethics

A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone's life in pawn. (Deut. 24:6)


  1. Creditors sometimes took only the upper stone, which weighed only four or five pounds and could not easily be replaced since basalt was not found naturally in most parts of the country. This would suffice to render the mill useless and induce the debtor to repay the debt as soon as possible."That would be taking someone's life in pawn," that is, something vital, a means of survival or anything with which the debtor prepares necessary food. (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary, on Deut. 24:6)
  2. You shall not enter his house to fetch his pledge. You shall not sleep with his pledge. You shall restore the pledge. (Deut. 24:10, 12-13)
  3. If you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets, it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:25-26)
  4. The borrower will cry to God, pleading that he is no different from the lender. Why should the lender enjoy a comfortable night's sleep while he, the borrower, does not because his bed garment was taken from him as a security? Where is the justice in this? He will cry. (Da'at Zekenim on Exodus 22:25)
  5. If a person holding a pledge dies, he obviously cannot return the pledge to the owner and his children might not be inclined to do so. Hence until the sun goes down, that is until the sun sets on his life, he must instruct his children to return the pledge to the lender and so avoid eventual difficulties and complications. (Keli Yakar on Exodus 22:25)
  6. If the lender is severely exacting of the borrower, the latter will be compelled to give pledge upon pledge until the lender has him completely under his control. He will then cry out to Me and I will surely listen. (Alshech on Exodus 22:26)
  7. Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment because they have sold for silver the innocent and the needy for a hidden gain. They who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and thrust the humble off the road upon garments taken in pledge, they stretch themselves out beside every altar. (Amos 2:6-8)
  8. The creditor may seize whatever he desires except what is essential for life. Amos is not alone in indicting elements of the population for such immoral behavior. Compare the words of the prophet Ezekiel, who uses the seizing or returning of a distraint as one of his criteria for distinguishing between a righteous and wicked man (Ezek. 18:7, 12, 16; 33:15). Job three times refers to the same theme in his catalogue of iniquities committed by the people. "They lead away the donkeys of the fatherless and seize the widow's bull as a pledge" (Job 24:3). Moreover, significantly this accusation in Job is directly followed in the next verse (v. 4) by "They chase the needy off the roads," thereby providing a similar juxtaposition of charges against the wealthy found in Amos 2:7-8. In Amos's denunciation, moreover, these wealthy creditors add insult to injury, for not only do they violate a law that is intended to provide protection for the poor but they also take these very garments and spread out by every altar - Even at the cultic shrines themselves, the wealthy remain insensitive to the illegal and immoral acts they commit against the destitute. Amos - clearly indicates that the taking of basic necessities for reclining and feasting was extremely widespread at this time, thereby poignantly emphasizing how abhorrent their action was. Even if their behavior were within the letter of the law, as long as the poor are made to suffer, the practice is denounced as being totally reprehensible. (Shalom Paul, Commentary on Amos)
  9. I hate, I despise your festivals. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer me burnt offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them. Remove from me the din of your hymns! And to the melody of your lutes, I will not listen. But let justice roll on like water, and righteousness life an ever-flowing stream. (Amos Chapter 5:21-24)
  10. To (some), justice was an obligation like other obligations, a commandment among many commandments of the law. Injustice was improper, of course, but neither more nor less offensive than any other infringement of the rules. Amos makes justice the supreme command overriding every other consideration or obligation, however important to the life of the community. Other ills of society are remediable, but injustice is a stab at the vital center of the communal whole. Worship in biblical religion could never be an end in itself, for God is not in need of ritual. In Israel, worship is God's favor to man, an act of His grace intended for the good of man, not God. Worship is meant to inspirit man with passion for justice, to purify and prepare him for the encounter with God. Worship and ritual are means, while justice and righteousness are ends. More, even, righteousness and justice are the encounter. God is justice, and His holiness is exalted in righteousness. (Shalom Spiegel, "Amos v. Amaziah")

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

Amidst all of Deuteronomy's attention to the problem of idolatry, the simple laws of everyday interactions between people might get overlooked. But, as the prophet Amos, notes ethics are primary. Sadly, the Israelites do not take to heart the words of Deuteronomy as the books of Ezekiel, Job, and Amos note. Amos, in particular, speaking to the 8th century BCE citizens of the northern kingdom, says to them that it is not ritual that is paramount but righteousness. "Rite (ritual) without right (righteousness) is wrong," as Professor Shalom Paul puts it. How often do we see "pious" people violating simple ethical norms?! Why is it that we find it much easier to observe ritual than adhere to the ethical standards established by our tradition?

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