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Torah Sparks

September 2, 2006 – 9 Elul 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 23:8 – 24:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 1123; Hertz p. 847)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


This parashah contains more laws than any other in the Torah; the variety of topics in the general area of family life and social norms is so great that it is impossible to find a single category in which to place them. The parashah begins with a law that deals with a harsh reality of war -- what is required of a man who sees and desires a woman he captures in battle. Another topic addresses the relationships between a man and his two wives, one beloved and the other now hated. The overall topic of family relationships continues with laws for dealing with a stubborn and rebellious son. We get our custom of burying our dead as quickly as possible from this parashah’s directive that a corpse may not to be kept out all night.

Among the laws in the next section is the requirement to return lost property, to maintain differences in men and women’s clothing, and to put a parapet around a roof for safety. A theme in the next section is keeping unlike things separated -- do not mix seeds in the same furrow, do not team an ox and ass together to plow, and do not wear clothing made of a mixture of wool and linen. Issues of sexual behavior are raised as well. The portion contains directives for a man who charges that his new wife was not an unmarried virgin. Adultery is punished by death. When a man forces himself upon a young unmarried woman he must pay a fine to her father, marry her, and forfeit the right to divorce her. (Later the rabbis mitigated this harsh law by allowing the woman the right to refuse to marry him.)

This portion reviews basic laws of divorce, including the requirement that a man must hand his wife her bill of divorcement. There are warnings about paying laborers on time and not taking clothing or working tools as collateral for a loan. It is forbidden to subvert the rights of a widow or stranger. Forgotten sheaves left in the field and gleanings of fruit trees shall be left for the poor. The basis for these laws is presented simply -- the Israelites must remember they were once slaves in the land of Egypt.

This portion also contains the laws of levirate marriage. When a man dies without a child, his brother has an obligation to marry the widow and raise a child in the name of the deceased. If the brother does not want to, he must participate in the rather unusual ceremony of release known as haliza. The portion ends with the warning to remember Amalek, the evil nation that attacked the Israelites from the rear.

Issue #1 - The Beautiful Captive

“You see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her as your wife” (Deuteronomy 21:11)


  1. There are some laws in the Torah that are painful for us moderns to read, much less understand how our religion could expect them to be observed. Sometimes, though, after further consideration, we can learn a profound, modern insight from these laws. The Torah speaks of a soldier who goes to war, takes captives, and sees a beautiful woman whom he desires. Laws were in place to prevent him from simply doing as he wishes with her. The captive was given 30 days to mourn her family, cut her hair and nails, and dress in the garments of a captive. Only after the 30 days was he permitted to take her as his wife.
  2. Was this really such a great improvement? What was the Torah trying to accomplish with this cruel law? Soldiers in the heat of battle behave in a way that civilians at home would never consider doing; war brings out the ugly side of people. The Torah, aware of this reality, tries to get the evil inclination under control. A man may desire a woman, but he cannot simply have his way with her. He must wait 30 days, while she has an opportunity to mourn, which likely diminished her beauty. At the end of the waiting period, there is a good chance that his desire will have died down altogether and she will be allowed to return to her home.
  3. The rabbis of the Talmud developed this idea farther and linked it to some of the other laws in the section. If a man should bring home a wife from the field of battle, the rabbis believed, she likely would be scorned and hated once his passion subsided. A child of their union would grow up to be a stubborn and rebellious son. By allowing his evil inclination to get the best of him in the field of battle, such a man would begin a series of events that could have tragic consequences.
  4. One goal of the Torah is to teach us human beings to control our evil inclination. Lust, violence, pride, gluttony, avarice, selfishness, and anger are all part of the human condition at the best of times. War, the worst of times, exacerbates the situation and brings out the worst of these emotions. Confronting that reality, the Torah requires soldiers to control their lust, even on the battlefield – particularly on the battlefield.
  5. Ben Zoma taught what I consider to be one of the most important rabbinic teachings, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their evil inclination” (Avot 4:1). If we human beings can learn self-control on the field of battle, how much more so can we practice it in the office, the school, the board room, or at home with our families.

Issue #2 – People on the Fringes

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land” (Deuteronomy 24:14)


  1. The way society treats those who are living on the fringes is central to the vision in this Torah portion. An entire structure for social justice is outlined in the parashah. Employers may not exploit a day laborer who dependson this wage to support him or herself. A creditor may not enter a private home to take clothing as collateral. A runaway slave may not be forcibly returned to his owner. Special care must be taken of the widows and the orphans, those without clear means of support. Even the body of an executed criminal deserves proper respect and may not be left out to be mocked overnight.
  2. The essence of these laws is to help reinforce the idea that all our fellow human beings, even those on the fringes, are created in the image of God. Each person has a fundamental dignity and is to be treated with kindness and respect. Most important, we must actually see other peoples, especially those people we do not even notice.
  3. Many of us who read these weekly Torah Sparks are highly respected professionals, working as managers in the corporate world, physicians, lawyers, college professors (even some rabbis, and cantors). The question the Torah begs to be addressed is whether those holding professional or upper level corporate positions give appropriate, or even notice at all, the support people whose work allows the other jobs to be done. How do we treat secretaries and other clerical workers, health workers and technicians, legal aids and couriers, graduate students, teaching assistants or religious school teachers? There is a hierarchy out there. Even if managers get passing grades from people in those support positions, what kind of grade should be given for how we treat those even closer to the bottom of the chain of authority -- food servers, maintenance workers, and janitors? Do the professionals even notice them? My question to those in the professional world is, you know the names of your clients and your patients, do you know the name of the person who cleans your office?
  4. Inherent in the laws of the Torah is a reminder that each and every person has a dignity that we may not disregard. What are some concrete ways in which we can recognize the dignity of “people on the fringes?”

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