Giving in to Weakness

The opening vignette of the parsha, Jews going to war, seeing attractive women and taking them, raises many moral issues. Rashi to 21;11, on the words ולקחת לך לאשה, says the Torah addressed our baser instincts, that had Hashem not permitted this, the soldier would have taken her anyway, despite its being prohibited.

But if he does marry her, Rashi continues, the verses predict he’ll end up hating her, the reason the next topic the Torah takes up is a man having a child with a woman he hates. Such a child will (quite possibly, I assume he meant) become a rebellious son, the next topic in the Torah.

Rashi’s not as confident of any of that as it might seem, because on verses twelve and thirteen, he reads the Torah makes her let her nails grow, mourn her family, and be constantly visible in this unadorned state to ensure the Jew loses interest in her. It will make him more likely to prefer a Jewish woman, who can present herself in her usual attractive state.

What’s odd here is that the Torah doesn’t generally yield to our claims that we are too tempted to give up a certain sin (slavery and sacrifices might have been other examples, each deserving a discussion of its own). It seems to me there must be more.

One last Rashi suggests why this might have been different. On 21;13, where the Torah says והסירה את שמלת שביה, she will remove her dress of captivity, Rashi tells us that non-Jewish women would dress up on days of war. By looking their most enticing, they could hope that if the other side won, they’d be taken as trophies (presumably, instead of killed).

I wonder whether that misuse of their sexuality affected the Torah’s perspective here — true, Jewish men should be above being lured by these women. But they are human. In the Torah’s continuing balance between asking us to become our best possible selves and understanding our current state, the other side’s violating the standards to which they should have stuck might have allowed for what goes on here.

The process she undergoes, for Rashi, assuages his temptation (he thinks he’s going to get her eventually, so he’ll follow the rules the Torah sets up), is uncomfortable for her (but no more than she deserves for having used her sexuality inappropriately), and leads, Rashi thinks the Torah hopes, to her being set free, once the man has recovered from the battlefield temptation, and sees that she’s no better than what he already has.

For Rashi, the Torah might not be yielding to his baser instincts, it might be channeling them in such a way that they never become actualized. Which is much more in line with the Torah’s pattern elsewhere.

With Kindness Comes Responsibility

Twice in the early verses of chapter 22, the Torah warns against being מתעלם, ignoring others’ property. The first time, verse one, it’s in the context of השבת אבידה, returning a lost object, and the second, verse three, it’s the commandment of פריקה וטעינה, helping unpack and repack a load on an animal that can’t bear it currently.

In both, Rashi understands the Torah to be warning us against hiding our eyes as if we do not see it. Few of us would be so brazen as to refuse to help someone in need when directly confronted with it. Instead, we pretend we didn’t see it. Which the Torah is telling is unacceptable.

But if we’re tempted to avoid taking time and effort to help others, those in need of help don’t always handle it properly, either. Verse four requires us to help the owner repack his animal, but says to do it עמו, with him. For Rashi, that means that if the owner dumps it on us, relishing that our obligation frees him of any need to participate, we do not have to continue.

It’s an important insight into a range of social welfare situations. Fundamentally, when others are in unfortunate circumstances, we have to help. Too often, those needing that help see that as an excuse to become completely passive, to put the onus on those coming to help them.

The Torah didn’t approve, Rashi tells us. So much so that if the person does that, the putative helper need not stay involved.

What Leads to Lasting Distance

In chapter 23, the Torah lists nations whose entry into Israel comes with some baggage. Verses four to five say that an Ammonite or Moabite (man) cannot ever marry a Jewish woman. Should such a man convert, he and all his descendants will only be allowed to marry other converts, but never a native-born Jewish woman.

Verse eight tells us Edomites and Egyptians are treated differently, the former because he is — way back when — our brother, the latter because we were guests in his land. For them, the third generation may marry native-born Jews. In all of these cases, note that the Torah is referring to converts, who have chosen to leave their original nation and join ours, who are declaring their faith in God and their desire to join the people dedicated to serving God, and whom we have many Torah commandments reminding us to love them and treat them well.

Yet they cannot so simply shuck off their past.

More than that, Rashi to verse nine, on the words בנים אשר יולדו להם, explains why the Edomites and Egyptians can eventually be fully accepted, while Ammonite and Moabite men never can. The Edomites attacked us physically, the Egyptians threw our babies in the water. (This is one more time that that one incident, which Rashi thinks occurred in the few months around Moshe’s birth, eighty years before the Exodus — takes on outsized importance in our memories of Egypt.)

The Ammonites and Moabites, in contrast, lured us to sin. For all that the Torah attributes these rules to their failure to greet us with bread and water and their hiring Balaam, Rashi thinks that all led to the idea to seduce Jewish men into relationships, idolatry, and punishment.

Leading to the realization that drawing another person to sin is worse than trying to kill them, since the first brings the victim’s destruction in this world and the next, whereas the physical attacker threatens the person only in this world.

It’s a perspective I think many of us forget, but that was clear to Rashi and, I think, just about all other Jewish thinkers.

Divorce for Cause

Chapter 24 opens with the story of a man divorcing his wife. The Torah adds that he does itכי מצא בה ערות דבר. Rashi comments that he must divorce her, so she not find favor in his eyes. It’s an important point, too often overlooked — sometimes, one partner in a marriage acts in such a way that the marriage simply cannot continue, and the other party should not allow him/herself to be tempted or convinced to continue.

The next verse speaks of her marrying לאיש אחר, another man. The Torah calls him “other,” Rashi says, because he is not the partner of the first man, in that he chose to build a relationship with a woman who had shown herself someone who violated the bounds of marriage.

We can broaden that to other circumstances. Often, people are too ready to rehabilitate a wrongdoer, without verifying he or she has actually changed. A company fires a CEO for misconduct, and s/he finds another job quickly, without any obvious or known process of rethinking. That the second person or group is so ready to discount the wrongs discovered by the first itself shows him/her/them to be other, to not share a moral code with that first one.

The Transferability of Social Weakness

Rashi to 25;17 sees a connection between the previous verses’ discussion of false weights and measures and this verse’s warning to remember Amalek. For Rashi, the Torah is telling us that lying in our weights and measures should lead us to worry about enemy attacks. Similarly, when 24;9 told us to remember what happened to Miriam, Rashi says it’s reminding us that to avoid tsara’at, we have to refrain from lashon hara, slanderous gossip.

In both cases, Rashi (and tradition) take for granted that one area of our lives can affect a seemingly completely independent other area of our lives. Logic doesn’t link fraud in weights and measures to attacks from enemies, nor does slander lead to tsara’at in any intuitive way. Other than that the Torah tells us it’s so.

It’s a reminder, to me, that we may have too narrow a view of cause and effect. Which might also mean we reject as ridiculous suggested causes for certain effects. These verses, with their Rashis, warn us to be a bit more circumspect, a bit more humble, in our certainty about what does or doesn’t cause what.

All part of seeing wrongs when they occur, and knowing how to react — but not overreact.