Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
74 diverse mitzvahs that impress moral values on the social structure
o Marrying female war captive
o Firstborn rights
o Disobedient son
o Exposed corpse of a criminal cannot stay hung overnight
o Restoring lost property
o Helping to lift fallen animals
Sparing the mother-bird (shiluach hakan)
Guardrails needed on roof
Forbidden agricultural and animal combinations
Sanctity of marriage
o Charges against a bride
o Adultery—if proven guilty, both participants die
o Prohibited marriages
Sanctity of the camp
Fugitive slaves are not to be returned
Cult prostitution prohibited
Charging neshech (interest) prohibited
Obligation to keep vows
Field workers may eat from the crop while working
Procedure for divorce
Newlywed gets a one year army exemption
kidnapping as a capital crime
Debt collection rules
Wages must be paid on time
Special care needs to be taken in the treatment of convert, widow, and orphan
Excessive punishment prohibited
Kindness to animals
Levirate marriage (Yibum)
Business integrity demands honest weights and measures
Eradicating the nation and the concept of Amalek
“Ki Seitzei Lamelchama aal Oyvecha: if (or when) you go out to wage (a non-obligatory) war against your enemies…”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, citing the Zohar, and noting that the word La-melchama (to war) relates to the Hebrew word for bread (lechem), sees the deeper meaning for this opening verse: When one emerges (from a spiritual setting into the body) to survive and to battle evil in the world one needs to be armed with the knowledge and performance of both Mitzvahs that were already given and those that soon will be presented. This Parsha is always read during the month of Elul, a time for introspection and repentance.
The Defiant, Rebellious Son
After detailing laws relating to the capture of an attractive woman during war and then the right of the first born to a double inheritance, the Torah introduces us to Ben Sorayr Umoreh, a stubborn, rebellious son who refuses to accept his parents’ authority. His parents warn him about his behavior in front of witnesses (Rashi). If he still steals and continues his extreme anti-social behavior (gluttony and drunkenness), the parents bring him to Court where he is judged, then stoned to death. The punishment is designed to …” clean out Evil from your midst and all Israel shall hear and fear.”
The child is first warned. If he persists in his behavior he gets lashings (malkos).He is then warned again and gets the death penalty if his actions are seen by two witnesses. The Sages tell us that the son is put to death not because of his current behavior but al shame sofo, for what he will eventually become (a thief to finance his gluttony and drunkenness). The severe restrictions placed by the Rabbis on the implementation of this law (e.g., both parents must be alive, both must look exactly the same and have the same voice) led Rav Shimon to conclude that “this law never happened and never will happen but is written in the Torah for us to study and receive reward!”
The proximity of topics prompts Rashi to conclude that existence of a rebellious son is linked to the father’s behavior at home -- bringing home and marrying a woman captive from war and then favoring the firstborn with a double portion of the inheritance. Saralee Boshnack thinks that the environment of favorites and favoritism often spawns this neurotic, anti-social behavior. The Torah presents one possible (extreme) outcome of a family permissiveness that tolerates/encourages children to openly mock and hate parents in both word and deed.
Or perhaps what we are to learn is the need for both parents to be of one mind when it comes to raising their children. By studying the extreme situation where they are not, we are able to learn about the garden variety issues of parenting (similar to behavioral researchers’ study of psychosis to understand neurosis).The “reward” we are to receive from studying this topic are the insights we gain that help improve our parenting skills.
By studying this text we may also realize that there are times when a child is born with a chemical/hormonal imbalance or a defective genetic makeup (“bad seed”). Then the al shame sofo could be understood as a euphemism for the irreversible and inevitable anti-social way that the child will behave throughout his life.
On Sheluach Hakan (sparing the mother-bird)
“If you come across a bird's nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby birds or eggs, then, if the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You must first chase away the mother, and only then may you take the young. [If you do this] you will have it good, and will live long.”
Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Hulin 142a), points out that if for an easy Mitzva like this (which does not involve any monetary outlay or hard work) one is promised a good long life, imagine how much more reward can be expected for performing the hard Mitzvahs! It is interesting that the reward for doing this “easy” Mitzvah is the same as for honoring one’s father and mother, probably the most difficult commandment to fulfill, in that in each case the reward is a long life.
Psychologically speaking, the sending away of the mother bird may express the truth that we humans ultimately need to leave the nest (“cut the mothers’ apron strings”) if we are to develop independence; become assertive (“habanem Tekach lach”) and experience a healthy emotional maturation (L’maan Yaarechun Yamecha).
Manya Berenholz thinks that Yaarechun Yamecha means that the individual gets the opportunity to move on to the next stage of his emotional life.
The Hebrew root-word of Yaarechun also means healing and restoration.Control and assertiveness are part of the growing-up process alluded to both here and in Kebud Av V’aim. Loss of a parent prematurely stunts the working-through process of this complex parent-child relationship; prevents movement to the next emotional level; and often results in the individual’s attempt (on an unconscious level) to relive past events to gain control.
Shiluach haKein: The transformation of a Mitzvah by Rabbi Natan Slifkin (a.ka. the “Zoo Rabbi”)…
…surveys the various (and sometimes contradictory) ways of understanding and fulfilling the Mitzvah—and how these ideas changed over time.
The approach of the rationalist school of thought, pioneered in The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry (and embodied in Rambam) is that:
• Knowledge can be obtained by our own reasoning and our own reasoning/evidence is preferable to blind faith
• There is a consistent natural order over history and a de-emphasis on the existence of supernatural forces and entities
• The role of Mitzvahs in our lives is to further the moral and intellectual personality of the individual; to establish proper relations in society; to inculcate truth; and to prevent bad habits
The approach of the mystical school of thought, popularized by the comprehensive Zohar, the foundation of Kabbalah, a book believed to have been composed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (student of Rabbi Akiva) in the second century C.E. (but first revealed in the thirteenth century and published by Rabbi Moshe de Leon in Spain) is that:
• Esoteric knowledge is gained by select people through some form of divine inspiration or revelation and should be taken on faith
• The existence, workings of, and belief in, supernatural entities and forces is emphasized
• Mitzvahs are the mechanism for achieving the manipulation of these spiritual/celestial forces
The Rationalists understand the two Mitzvahs of Shiluach Hakan --negative prohibition of not taking mother with the young and positive commandment to send the mother away before taking the young--in terms of compassion. It is cruel and greedy to take both mother and young. It is heartless to take advantage of the mother’s maternal instincts to protect her young.
Rambam focuses on the idea of Tzaar Baal Chaim (avoidance of the pain the mother bird would have experienced) had she been there when her eggs were taken. The Talmud cites a statement that appears to be at odds with this approach: if, during his prayers, the Chazzan asks God to be merciful like He is with the Kan Tzipor, we stop him, because we cannot assume that this Mitzvah exists only because of His compassion. Rambam indicates that this is a minority opinion.
Ramban believes it would be an act of cruelty to remove (and presumably eat) the mother bird and her eggs. The aim of this Mitzvah is educational to inculcate compassion and kindness in our interactions with other people until it becomes part of our persona. [Note: Having witnessed the extreme cruelty of Nazis taking mother and children together to their deaths--and having the mothers watch the torturing of their children--re-affirms Mankind’s critical need to live and to practice compassion.] The Torah’s desire to improve our behavior in dealing with animals--and ultimately with fellow humans--is also manifest in other Mitzvahs like the prohibition of slaughtering a mother cow and it’s calf on the same day and the prohibition of cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk (mentioned three times in the Torah).
Ibn Kaspi thinks this is one of several Mitzvahs designed to reconnect us with the world in a way that removes our arrogance and inflated self-importance. We have a kinship with the animal world; eating of meat was a grudging concession after the Flood and even then with restrictions. Regarding the plant world, we cannot, for example, arbitrarily cut down fruit- bearing trees. The soil connection is manifest in its required resting every seven years. Though commanded to dominate the Earth, Man remains part of it and must relate to it accordingly.
Mystics view this Mitzvah as containing many secrets of the Torah. The Zohar writes that when God sees the mother bird in pain as it flits from place to place, it evokes His Mercy --which then spreads to Jewish people in Exile where it is needed. Amazingly, according to this approach it takes a deliberate act of cruelty to cause God to extend His compassion to the Jewish people!
There is a debate over whether the commandment is optional or obligatory. The Torah text conveys a scenario in which one happens across a bird nest and then if he wants the eggs or baby birds (a free food source) he must send the mother bird away before taking them. The rationalists, who view compassion as the purpose of the Mitzvah, argue that in the case where one does not want the young there is no reason to send away the mother bird. But mystics maintain there is a strong motivation to send away the mother in any case because that very act triggers Divine compassion.
Those who ruled that the commandment is optional still characterize people who seek out the opportunity to do the Mitzvah as praiseworthy. Over the years some people traveled in the dark of night at their own risk to seek out a nest to perform the Mitzvah. That people today seek out opportunities is partly because of the Zohar’s explanation of the purpose of the Mitzvah and partly because of the personal rewards promised by the Torah for its performance --extra life, presumably for allowing the mother bird to flee and have further offspring (extra life). The Midrash expands on this: for allowing the mother bird to escape and have more children, one will be blessed with more children. For allowing her to create a new nest, one will be rewarded with a new “nest” (home). For “sending away” the coming of the Messiah is hastened.
The rise of mysticism has dramatically changed the way this and other Mitzvahs are understood. For example, mezuzah, which was meant to serve as a reminder of one’s duties to God, now is perceived as a mystical tool for the protection of one’s home. Washing one’s hands in the morning once served hygienic and psychological purposes but now, with the rise of mysticism, is seen as a means for removal of harmful spiritual forces.
The topic of Amalek is discussed twice in the Torah.
In the Book of Exodus we are presented with a factual account of what happened and God Himself’ s commitment to personally destroy Amelek . Moshe reiterates that “God will be at war with Amelek throughout the ages”. In this week’s parsha, God calls upon us to act :“Remember what Amelek did to you…you shall blot out the memory of Amelek from under heaven .Do not forget.” [Note: it is this week’s text that is read on Shabbos Parshat Zachor.] That nomadic tribe, unprovoked and totally lacking in fear of God attacked from the rear where the weakest were located. They were the first group to attack, and dispelled the fear the surrounding nations felt towards the Israelites. Rashi, commenting on the use of the phrase that Amelek “met you”-- the Hebrew word for “met” can also be traced to a root meaning “cold”--compares the situation to a bath of boiling water that no one can enter. When a fool comes along and jumps in he may get scalded but he has cooled it for others. Amalek got burned by being first , but made it easier for Israel’s other enemies to attack.
Nechama Leibowitz observes that in Exodus, Moshe speaks as an historian but here, because he speaks as a lawgiver and moralist, he dwells on Amelek’s wickedness and cruelty.
The expression “and he [Amelek] feared not God” employed both here and elsewhere in the Torah communicates the subject’s immoral behavior and lack of pity and fundamental humanity. Nechama Leibowitz adds that Amelek is “the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and defenseless in every generation”. More than just a people (whose identity today is unknown) Amelek is the embodiment of Evil that must be recognized, confronted and eradicated.
In the Book of Exodus, the topic of Amelek follows on the heels of an incident in which the Israelites seem to have doubted God’s presence among them. In this week’s parsha the topic follows a demand that one be upright and truthful in business (by maintaining honest weights and scales).Perhaps what is being communicated in both places is the pressing need to honestly look into ourselves and face the truth in us. Have we absorbed and then behaved according to the Torah ethics? (“Is God within us” means have we made His integrity and ethics part of us.)Failure to embrace His Goodness in our behavior lays the groundwork for Evil in the world as embodied in Amelek.
Sandra Gottesman notes that each of us needs to place ourselves in a time or place or situation that can evoke God’s Mercy. The month of Elul and the upcoming Aseres Yemai T’shuva are the perfect times for reflection and introspection in the hope that by changing ourselves for the better (Tshuva), God will unleash His powerful, positive forces of Mercy in the world. We need to observe all the Mitzvos, recognizing that none is unimportant and ease of observance is relative and can influenced by time or place.
The difference between what constitutes a hard or easy Mitzvah may be in the planning involved. A “hard” mitzvah requires forethought, planning and repetition. Practicing both the expected and the easy strengthens our ability to reflexively, effectively and appropriately perform the unexpected ones like Sheluach Hakan that we call ”easy”.