Thought of the Week: 15 September 2016 (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 14 September 2016

As with most things, there are two ways of looking at mitzvot. The first is to wonder what it was the ancient Israelites did to bring upon themselves – and by implication, us – the burden of 613 commandments.  The second is to consider how fortunate we are to have so many opportunities to carry out the divine will.  Depending on which of these approaches you prefer, there is no doubt that this week’s sidrah is either the best or worst for you, as it includes more than seventy mitzvot, far more than any other.

In fact, it’s a great miscellany of laws, seemingly unrelated, although some scholars have attempted to create thematic or verbal connections.  I doubt very much whether any order or format is of any real interest, what is fascinating is the weaving together of an incredible variety of rules covering every aspect of life, recognising morality, humanity and ethical behaviour, whether addressed towards people or animals, friend or enemy.  A few examples will demonstrate the spectrum of mitzvot included in the sidrah, but you need to read the whole of it to fully appreciate the range.`

The first few verses deal with law relating to marriage with a woman captured in war.  Later, of course, in Talmudic times, conversion was necessary, but in Biblical times it was enough to have separated the woman from her family and culture.

Then we read of the right of the firstborn in a polygamous family.  Irrespective of which wife was preferred, the right of the firstborn to inherit a larger share was to be ensured.  A lengthy passage deals with the punishment of an insurbordinate son – but it mustn’t be taken too literally – because the rabbis created a whole series of limitations, whereby the punishment, according to one scholar, was never actually carried out.

A few short verses set out the treatment of the body of an executed criminal, returning lost animals, assisting with fallen animals and not wearing clothing of the opposite sex.  Then follows the command not to capture a mother bird along with her young; the reward for keeping this command is a lengthened life.  The only other command in Torah which merits this reward is the honouring of parents.  The message seems to be: for looking after one generation, the next generation will prosper.

The text goes on to the need to build a parapet around a flat roof so as to ensure that nobody would fall off and get hurt – if one didn’t and someone were to fall to their death, the owner would be guilty of homicide by negligence. Then comes the forbidden combinations: mixing seeds in the crops, plowing with different species of animal, combining wool and linen – the first two understandable, the latter incomprehensible to human minds.  Attaching finges to garments is the next mitzvah, which gives us the tzitzit and tallit. This is followed by a series of laws about marital and sexual misconduct; accusations of premarital unchastity; adultery with a married woman, with an engaged virgin and rape of an unengaged virgin.

There are many more: honest weights and measures, levirate marriage and chalitzah, kidnapping, but just let me conclude with two that address the humanity of the time.  A newly-married man had his army service deferred.  A poor man’s pledge – usually the coat that covered him while he slept – could not be retained overnight.  Far more humane than our own times!