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Pure Priorities

4 minute read
Straightforward

In the Torah’s conception of a Jewish nation-state, ritual purity was a prominent element of daily life, and all people were to be mindful of their purity status at all times. The state of impurity makes people unsuited to specific activities and puts them at risk of contaminating sanctified foods and objects. A person in a state of impurity must undergo a predefined purification process that usually includes the passage of a specified amount of time.

Although we no longer practice most purity laws today, we still retain certain ritual immersion practices for our bodies or kitchenware as a legacy of these laws.

Traditionally, the stewards and supervisors of this body of law were the priests, the kohanim, who were expected to be knowledgeable and fluent in these laws. This knowledge was essential given their role in Temple service and year-round consumption of Terumah, the donated foods that only a kohen could consume while in a state of ritual purity. 

The prime source of impurity within these laws is death; being near a dead person changes a person’s status to ritually impure. The Torah’s impurity doesn’t neatly align with anything we can relate to today; it has nothing to do with hygiene or sin.

The Torah holds different people to different purity standards; most people can attend to the dead with no issue. Given that a kohen’s life and work revolve around purity, it follows that a kohen’s attending to the dead is more restricted; even today, a kohen may not intentionally come into contact with a dead body nor approach too closely graves within a Jewish cemetery, except for seven legally defined close relatives. 

The Kohen Gadol was held to even stricter standards; he wasn’t even allowed to contaminate himself to attend to a deceased parent. 

Apart from the hierarchy of purity standards that exists for people, there is also a hierarchy of purity in time. Before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would isolate for seven days to attain the highest purity status and perform his duties on the year’s holiest day. With these seven days of preparation, he could enter the Holy of Holies and perform the most sacred ritual of the year.

Purity plays a central and pervasive role in the Torah’s conception of Jewish life, and yet in a landscape where purity is everything, there is a revealing exception. There is a law that obligates all Jewish people to take responsibility for the burial of an unattended Jewish body; this obligation is almost absolute and takes precedence over the entire body of purity laws – מת מצוה.

Traditional burial is recommended in general to all humans as all are created in God’s image – חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם. Traditional burial is mandatory for Jews; other funeral rites including cremation are prohibited. The mitzvah of burial includes a component of urgency that for certain close relatives,  nearly all positive obligations are suspended until after the burial has concluded to facilitate prompt burial. It is degrading to allow a body, which remains sacred even in death, to gratuitously lie idle and unburied – קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּי־קִלְלַת אֱלֹקים תָּלוּי.

Every Jewish person must intentionally contaminate themself to bury someone who has no one else; every kohen must as well, even though they are unrelated and would not otherwise be permitted to contaminate themselves if there were anyone else able to attend to the burial. The obligation to immediately bury the unattended dead is so compelling that it even obligates a Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlights this hierarchy of laws to reveal the Torah’s sense of where human priorities ought to lie. 

Even the holiest person, on the most sacred day of the year, about to perform his holiest and most core function, must roll up his sleeves and wade into someone else’s mess and get their hands dirty; which is to say that no one is above serving others. It is a grave mistake to be too good for that; the Torah endorses that the correct decision under the circumstances is to forgo performing his duties on Yom Kippur and that the Yom Kippur service is subordinate to his duty to bury the dead.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders if the Torah obligates all people to take responsibility for the unattended dead, what might it then ask of us concerning the living dead, people born Jewish and yet totally unaffiliated, cut off, and isolated from any trace of Judaism. While the analogy isn’t precise, perhaps it’s directionally accurate.

The Jewish People are a sanctified nation where all are called to serve – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ.

But however holy or self-righteous you are or think you may be, the Torah demands that you get off your high horse, roll up your sleeves and get out there and attend to physical and spiritual orphans, people who don’t have anyone else. If the Kohen Gadol encounters an unattended dead body on Yom Kippur, his role and duties are suspended entirely; his only responsibility is to help the person in front of him. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s followers took this teaching to heart; pioneering heroes and their brave families moved across the globe to set up a Jewish presence worldwide. They stepped far beyond their comfort zones with enormous self-sacrifice out of concern for others.

It might be a bit much to ask that of yourself, but you don’t have to move to the middle of nowhere to recognize that attending to the needs of others is one of the Torah’s highest priorities. The Kotzker mocked the Tzaddik in pelts, a holy man in his fur coat. When people are cold, does the righteous man light a fire that warms others, or does he simply sit back in his comfortable coat sending thoughts and prayers for their wellbeing?

When God talks to Avraham about what it would take to save the people of Sodom, God’s conception of righteous people worth saving is people who are out on the streets, engaging with and influencing their surroundings – צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר. 

We don’t live our lives with purity at the forefront of our minds. But the Torah consistently reminds us where the purity of our priorities must lie.

Caring for others is a core part of the spiritual life. A spiritual life that doesn’t engage the world with acts of care and compassion towards others isn’t spiritual at all.

Amalek Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah has lots of laws. Some are fun and easy to understand, like Shabbos, and some are fun and difficult to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are not only difficult to understand but leave us with a sense of moral unease as well.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

On the back of the miraculous Exodus and escape at the Red Sea, the Jewish People were exhausted and weary when a band of raiders called Amalek attacked the stragglers in the group.

By most counts, there are no less than three separate duties incumbent on all Jews as it pertains to Amalek: to remember that Amalek attacked the Jewish People just as they left Egypt; not to forget what they did; and the big one, to eradicate the memory of Amalek from the world.

These laws are serious and are part of the rare category of mitzvos that apply to all people at all times under all circumstances. 

But isn’t it a little unsettling? 

It sounds uncomfortably like a mitzvah to commit genocide, the moral argument against which is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment “do not kill” from God’s own voice at Sinai; even more so having suffered a genocide in living memory. Although some people have no trouble understanding it that way, you’re in good company if you find difficulty in a commandment to kill Amalek today.

Long ago, the Gemara dismissed the notion of practicing the straightforward interpretation, pointing to a story in the Prophets where the Assyrian king Sennacherib forcibly displaced and resettled the entire Middle East, eliminating distinct bloodlines of racial descent.

While this elegantly eliminates the problem in a practical sense – there is no problem because the law can no longer apply – the moral issue remains open.

Over centuries, a substantial number of prominent halachic authorities have clarified that the status of Amalek is not racial; that although a tribe called Amalek attacked the Jewish People and formed the context for the law, the law is not and never was an instruction to commit genocide against those people. While the Gemara says that Amalek can never join the Jewish People, it also says that descendants of Amalek taught Torah in Israel, suggesting that their women, or children of women who married out, could lose their identity as Amalek. If Amalek isn’t a race, then there is no law to kill such a particular of people, and there is no moral dilemma.

R’ Chaim Brisker explains that Amalek is not a particular group of humans; it is a conceptual category. It’s an attitude and ideology that transcends any specific race or individual and persists forever, an archetype of evil that we must fundamentally stand against and be on alert for. Writers through the ages have labeled enemies or opposition as Amalek, which, although often lazy, correctly categorizes and formalizes this eternal struggle.

 The perpetrators of the original crime are all dead, and modern society does not believe in the heritability of guilt, but the offense isn’t simply that they physically attacked the Jewish People. As Rashi explains, it’s that they cooled us off along the way while we were weary – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ. It’s not apologetics or mental gymnastics; it neatly fits the words and is something we recognize all around us.

As the Netziv points out, it would be self-defeating to have an eternal command to destroy something’s memory; the Torah makes that literally impossible simply by mentioning it.

The Kedushas Levi goes further and suggests that the legacy of Amalek lies in the heart of every person.

So sure, the malignant form of Amalek looks like a Haman or a Hitler. But the benign form is all around us, in ourselves and in others. It’s not any particular humans we need to overcome, but rather, their attitude and ideology. Case in point, the fight against Amalek does not end even though the nation is long gone; its legacy remains, and it’s the legacy that poses a threat.

A Chassidic aphorism observes that Amalek is numerically equivalent to doubt – עמלק / ספק – and the attack in Rephidim only happens opportunistically when people were caught off guard – רְפִידִים / רפיון ידים.

In our day-to-day lives, that looks like when you consider doing something bold or different, and someone, perhaps even yourself, pokes holes or second-guesses the new initiative. “I want to try this new idea, but maybe I shouldn’t? What if it’s the wrong choice? Maybe I don’t deserve it?” Or perhaps, “Why start or support that project—aren’t there far more important ones?”

Anthropologists and psychologists have long observed the phenomenon of crab mentality in some groups. The metaphor derives from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when they are trapped in a bucket – any individual crab could easily escape, but the others will undermine its efforts, ensuring the group’s collective demise. In some groups, members will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others, whether out of envy, resentment, spite, or competitive feeling, to halt their progress. The wrong circles have powerful inertia that draws members towards conformity and mediocrity in a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop.

As Churchill said, if you have enemies, that means you’ve stood up for something at some time in your life. To be sure, if you only have enemies, you have a different problem; but if you have no enemies, you also have a problem, likely that you try to please everybody rather than standing for your own ideas and values. Make sure you know which side of the line you’re on!

Letting feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence persist is called impostor syndrome. You can baselessly hold back from doing things that could transform your life because you’re not ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

If it sounds pithy or trite, just know that that’s quite literally Amalek’s great crime – trying to hold the Jewish People back just as they were beginning to break through, discouraging them just as they were getting started and finding their feet – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ.

As the Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, you must eliminate all doubt – הִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק.

Remember that someone who was Amalek can lose their status; when they discard their harmful ideology, they’re not the enemy anymore, and the law no longer applies to them.

Haters rarely hate you; far more often, they hate themselves because you’re showing them a reflection of what they wish they could be, and they don’t like feeling inadequate.

Shine bright and soar, and forget about the people who tried to hold you back.

When Something is Off

6 minute read
Straightforward

As the Jewish People approached the Land of Israel, bordering nation-states became concerned. Familiar with the Jewish People’s encounters and victories over the tribes and states who had crossed them, Balak, chieftain of Moav, correctly anticipated imminent conflict and geopolitical upheaval. 

Seeking divine aid, he sent elders to Bilam, a renowned mystic and shaman, whose abilities as a holy man were established and respected. Bilam accepted the invitation and set out with them to curse the Jewish People to hinder their so far unstoppable march.

Bilam saddled his donkey and departed with the dignitaries, but God would not endorse his mission and sent an angel to obstruct him. The donkey saw an angel standing in the way holding a drawn sword, so the donkey turned off the road into a field, and Bilam beat the donkey to turn her back onto the road. The angel reappeared in a narrow walled lane, and seeing the angel, the donkey cowered against the sidewall, crushing Bilam’s leg, so he beat her again. The angel then repositioned itself in a narrow spot that allowed no room for maneuver, and the donkey lay down, so Bilam beat the donkey one last time.

After the third beating, God gave the donkey the power to speak, and she complained to Bilam that she had always been a loyal steed and did not deserve these beatings. God then gives Bilam the ability to see the angel, and Bilam bows to the ground; the angel then berates Bilam for beating the donkey, noting that she saved Bilam’s life. Bilam admits his error and the story proceeds.

While our modern sensibilities suggest that it’s wrong to beat animals, the story seems to assume that some part of animal training plausibly includes negative reinforcement, so that wouldn’t be why the donkey and angel are so angry at Bilam. Instead, the sense we get as readers is that the beating is wrong because the donkey is innocent. It’s not disobedient; it’s scared of this strange and intimidating thing.

Yet Bilam is missing the crucial piece of information that unlocks the story and proves he was wrong to strike the donkey – that there is an invisible but deadly threat ahead, and his donkey is frightened of this imminent danger! Without this missing piece, it would seem exactly how Bilam thought it looked; his donkey was misbehaving and not following directions, so he did what animal trainers do – he hit the donkey, entirely consistent with what he understood was happening. His trained animal started behaving erratically for no apparent reason, wandering off and walking into walls; Bilam reacted perfectly rationally!

Seeing as he did not have the key to understanding what was really going on, what did he do that was so wrong that both the angel and talking donkey told him off?

The Kedushas Levi suggests that this exact line of thinking was Bilam’s mistake. 

If you’ve ever noticed that something is a little off, you typically feel a sense of unease, as the sense of wrongness slowly but undeniably creeps up on you. Bilam should have noticed that something strange was happening and taken a moment’s pause to contemplate, but he missed the cue; something incredibly unusual happened, not once, not twice, but three times, and he totally missed it.

Instead of noticing and contemplating, he got angry and beat his donkey, powering right on with his plan, blaming rather than understanding. That’s not the way a purported man of God ought to behave.

A person professing to live their lives according to their understanding of God’s mission and the right thing to do ought to check their ego and keep their eyes wide open. But Bilam couldn’t see past his ego; he sought the fortune and power this prestigious mission would bring, and nothing was going to put him off course.

There’s a classic joke about a flood, and the waters reach the top of the priest’s home. The priest climbs to the roof, and a neighbor with a boat comes by and says, “Hop on, I’ll take you to safety.” The priest replied, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” Then the water reaches his waist when a helicopter comes by and drops a ladder. The priest shouts up, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” Finally, the water goes over his head, and he paddles to the surface. Another boat comes by and offers to bring the priest to safety. Once again, he declined, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” The priest paddles until he is exhausted, and he drowns and dies. He reaches the gates of Heaven, puzzled, and asks God, “Lord, why didn’t you save me?” only for God to reply, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”.

The signal isn’t only when God opens Bilam’s eyes to see the angel. By that point, he’d already missed it three times and had only been spared from disaster at the very last moment in a stroke of fortune, mercy, and providence. Even if he could excuse the first time the donkey misbehaved as a one-off, the second and third time in quick succession were moments he ought to have realized something was off, and he might have reconsidered whether he was doing the right thing. But instead of acknowledging the obstacles in his way with humility and understanding and adjusting accordingly, he responded with anger, ego, and pride, lashing out in rage at his poor donkey.

The nature of our universe is that life doesn’t go according to plan; no plan survives contact with the enemy, as one proverb put it. So when we hit speed bumps and obstacles, we ought to be strategic in responding; some obstacles need to be climbed, and some obstacles require a full detour and rerouting.

To be clear, obstacles do not evidence that the direction or path is wrong; they are sadly silent on that. But there are signs, and we should respond to them with the serious consideration they deserve and consider which way they point, where we are in the physical and spiritual universe, where we are going, and how we’d best get there.

Bilam’s mistake wasn’t that he hit the donkey; that is somewhat excusable. Bilam’s mistake was that he had all the tools necessary to recognize the obstacles that pointed him away from his ill-fated mission. Instead, he ignored the cues, responding with anger and ego three times, without one moment of introspection and self-reflection. If the unusual and extraordinary make no impression and fail to spark a moment of reflection and reorientation, we are ignoring the signs; you probably shouldn’t count on a flaming angel wielding a magic sword showing up with the helpful feedback you need.

But to put it another way, if it takes a flaming angel with a magic sword to let you know you’re on the wrong track, you haven’t been paying attention, and you probably should have realized quite some time ago. 

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits suggests that this story highlights Bilam’s central flaw – his character. Bilam had abilities equal to or greater than even Moshe, but he wasn’t a teacher or leader. With all the unique knowledge and power he possessed, he was just a wizard for hire, a simple mercenary in the venal pursuit of money, power, and prestige.

Our Sages suggest that Bilam had the ability to identify the most opportune moment to curse people. So while God neutralized this specific scheme against the Jewish People, we are left with a story about who Bilam was, a man who, with all his abilities and wisdom, used them to carve a profession out of knowing when to curse people most effectively – assuming the pay was good enough, of course.

The Mishna in Avos contrasts students from the school of Avraham with students from the school of Bilam. It’s not that the school of Bilam isn’t learned or wise; Bilam is never characterized as ignorant or stupid! But perhaps the Mishna suggests that our wisdom is reflective of our character – that we don’t see the world as it is, but rather as we are.

If we focus our gifts and wisdom on pursuing fame, money, and power, we channel the evil eye of Bilam. But if we utilize our gifts to show compassion and generosity, kindly and selflessly giving to and serving others, then we are students from the school of Avraham, who prayed for Sodom, even though its people were the antithesis of all he stood for.

The story of Bilam stands as an example for all time of the folly of skill without character, of being plugged in but not tuned in. We need to understand who we are and where we are, striving to become caring, good, kind, and honest human beings; or else our wisdom is useless, or worse, dangerous.

Next time you encounter obstacles, check your ego and open your eyes.

You might need to course-correct, and you might not; but if you’re attentive and responsive to your particular path, you probably already know if you’re on the right track or not.

Make it Right

2 minute read
Straightforward

There is a widely held belief that when we sin, as everyone inevitably does, we corrupt ourselves in some fundamental and irredeemable way. The Torah strongly disagrees:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה רִיב בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים, וְנִגְּשׁוּ אֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט וּשְׁפָטוּם; וְהִצְדִּיקוּ, אֶת-הַצַּדִּיק, וְהִרְשִׁיעוּ, אֶת-הָרָשָׁע. וְהָיָה אִם-בִּן הַכּוֹת, הָרָשָׁע–וְהִפִּילוֹ הַשֹּׁפֵט וְהִכָּהוּ לְפָנָיו, כְּדֵי רִשְׁעָתוֹ בְּמִסְפָּר אַרְבָּעִים יַכֶּנּוּ, לֹא יֹסִיף: פֶּן-יֹסִיף לְהַכֹּתוֹ עַל-אֵלֶּה מַכָּה רַבָּה, וְנִקְלָה אָחִיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ – If there is a dispute between men; they shall approach the court, and the judges will judge them, and acquit the innocent one and condemn the guilty one. If the guilty one has incurred lashes, the judge shall make him lean over and flog him in front of him, commensurate with his crime, in number. He shall beat him with forty lashes; he shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe flogging than these forty lashes, and your brother will be degraded before your eyes. (25:1-3)

Aside from the facts of the case the Torah describes, it is noteworthy that the very instant the crime is remediated, the Torah reclassifies the offender as “your brother” – רָשָׁע / אָחִיךָ.

From this, the Sifri derived the fundamental principle that we must rehabilitate offenders. Once a wrongdoer has made amends, he becomes your brother again. For example, he is permitted to be a witness like anyone else, and his testimony is no less credible. The stain on his character is temporary, not permanent. He is not an “ex-criminal” or “Baal Teshuva”; he is “your brother.”

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that Judaism believes in rehabilitation both spiritually and in civil law. Beyond the natural drive to protect the rights of those who have been wronged, the Torah also seeks to help wrongdoers rebuild and make amends.

When someone sins or stumbles, the Torah condemns the act, not the person. The moment a wrong has been made right, anyone can become “your brother,” once again.

Hate the sin, not the sinner.

I Can’t See

< 1 minute
Straightforward

One of the Torah’s recurring themes is that a community consists of individuals looking past themselves, and seeing the other:

לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ – Do not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying and ignore them – you should return them to your brother. (22:4)

This law is in line with the Torah’s vision – but the way the Torah phrases it is instructive.

If the key message is not ignoring things, why does the law start with “Don’t see,” instead of “Don’t ignore”?

The Sfas Emes answers that “seeing” is not a purely a visual function. Seeing also requires the mental and emotional aspects of perception and understanding.

The Torah does not charge us with a simple instruction against ignoring – it charges us with changing the way we look at things.

לֹא תִרְאֶה … וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ – Don’t see […] and ignore!

The Torah demands that we free our vision of blindness. We must see, notice, feel, and respond in kind.

Teaching Your Children

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the less familiar laws in the Torah is that of the rebellious son:

.כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ – If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they rebuke him, and he still does not listen to them; his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a guzzler.” All the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear. (21:18-21)

The thinking was that such a child with no boundaries would eventually commit murder, and it is better to die young and innocent than old and guilty.

A predetermination like that shouldn’t sit right with you, and it apparently didn’t sit right with Chazal either. Chazal set very rigid parameters to meet the definitional requirements: the boy’s age is limited to the three months following his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen impossibly large quantities of meat; cooked in a particular way; paired with a precise amount of wine; all while on his father’s property; and both had to agree that their son be sentenced to death, which no parent would, let alone both.

The concurrence of these conditions is not just improbable – the Gemara in Sanhedrin says it is impossible, and that no Sanhedrin ever observed this mitzvah. It’s in the Torah for us to study the law and merit its reward.

But the Torah does not lack substance such that it requires “filler” content. So what could be the particular reward be for the studying this law that we don’t have from the rest of the Torah?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein concludes by studying this law closely, one discovers the Torah’s guidelines on good parenting.

When a child is overindulged, the word we use is “spoilt” – meaning the person has quite literally been ruined.

With this law, the Torah tells us to recognize when a child is growing out of control and to do something about it -“You cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear” – וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ

If the Torah wants kind and balanced human beings, we must prevent selfishness and indulgence in our children, and this law is the paradigm of what not to do – וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ.

A tree can be straightened with a splint while still a sapling. It takes twenty years to grow an oak tree, but just a few months to grow a cucumber.

Tests And Consequences

3 minute read
Straightforward

It should go without saying that war is terrible.

Apart from the carnage between opposing forces, one of its awful consequences is that local civilians are typically subject to collateral damage at best, and direct atrocities at worst. The Jewish people know this fact better than most, and students of history will know of many others.

For the vast majority of human history, men were massacred, and women were raped and possibly enslaved. Although international humanitarian law has considered wartime sexual violence as a war crime in the last century, it still occurs frequently in less developed parts of the world.

The Torah is sensitive to the moral challenge of this baseline reality, and steps in to regulate it with the law of the captive woman:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives; if you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)

This mitzvah flies in the face of what we today consider to be moral and ethical. How can the Torah endorse such a barbaric act?

Rashi immediately explains that the Torah does not command, endorse, or approve this; instead, the law speaks to mankind’s baser inclination in the heat of the moment, and grants a discretionary permission.

R’ Daniel Rowe expounds that a law’s inclusion in the Torah doesn’t have to be an endorsement at all.

If we scrutinize the context, the laws continue that for 30 days she must be shaved bald, mourning her family in unkempt black rags. This “marriage” is not meant to be romantic or attractive, perhaps precisely so that the soldier regrets forcing this poor stranger under his roof, and will return her home.

The next two laws that follow are the laws of a despised wife and the rebellious son, which Chazal understood to mean that by taking advantage of this permission, a man would come to hate his wife, and their sour relationship would produce bad children.

While the Torah contains lofty ideals, it also contains certain threshold requirements that elevate baseline morals and norms for the moments we are not at our best.

With this law, the Torah requires a total departure from thousands of years of normalized slavery and rape. Instead of conforming to the convention that classified women as spoils of war like other property to be exploited, the Torah demands that a woman’s personhood is acknowledged and respected, and her dignity preserved.

This is a radical polemic that represents a total paradigm shift.

Recognising that is what the mitzvah really is.

The Torah demands more of its adherents. When we wage war, we are supposed to fight justly and ethically, with minimal harm to others, in the same way that we are supposed to live our daily lives.

The Torah is not some distant ideal that is beyond the reach and understanding of humans – לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.

The Torah is written for humans, with all our fallibility – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

The Torah talks about rape and slavery. But just because they are in the Torah, that does not mean they are ideals that we aspire to practice ever again.

Because if we study a little closer, the Torah is actually steering us away from a world that tolerates such rampant immoral practices, and towards the more civilized world we are familiar with today.

Charity Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of the modern world we inhabit is the notion of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status; giving birth to, among others, the ideas that women aren’t lesser than men, and that black people aren’t lesser than white people, and the like.

This has been a decisively positive development in many respects; it is self-evident that all humans are fundamentally equal, and the Torah says as much – וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים  אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

But it is equally evident that in many respects, the universe is not fair or equal; plenty of people are disadvantaged in countless ways. Many hardworking, honest, and decent people have difficult, stressful, and impoverished lives, not to mention the various health issues so many people experience. Human input isn’t decisive; luck is.

A modern phenomenon in human civilization has emerged to address this imbalance: the welfare state. First-world governments allocate taxpayer funds to alleviate the poverty of the disadvantaged and less fortunate – in other words, charity is a core part of national policy. This practice has been criticized for perversely enabling and exacerbating poverty further, reducing the incentive for workers to seek employment by reducing the need to work and reducing the rewards of work. If we help these people, so the thinking goes, they become dependent and lazy. Moreover, it’s a zero-sum game; I have to give up more of what’s mine, and somebody else gets the benefit from it – as any child could tell you, that’s not fair!

While the specific contours of government policy are best left to experts, it brings to the fore a relevant question that profoundly impacts our orientation to others. 

What do we owe to each other?

The conventional understanding of charity is that it’s an act of benevolent kindness and generosity, initiated and executed at the actor’s sole discretion; but this is not the Jewish understanding. 

The Jewish understanding of tzedaka is orders of magnitude more comprehensive and overarching. Extending far beyond the boundaries of kindness, the word itself literally means justice. The practice is a religious duty and social obligation; we have a duty to dispense God’s justice by helping the less fortunate. In the ancient agrarian world of the Torah, Jewish farmers were subject to mandatory religious taxes that were allocated to different beneficiaries according to specific parameters. To this day, many Jews tithe their income, allocating at least ten percent to worthy causes.

The Torah is consistently firm and unequivocal in our obligations towards each other:

וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ… וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him… Let your brother live by your side, with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)

This framing allows no savior complex; the Torah says plainly that the recipient of your help is a disadvantaged equal, lateral to you. There is no hierarchy or verticality in helping your brother – אָחִיךָ – and you must help him live alongside you, with you – עִמָּךְ. The person you get to help is not lesser or worse than you.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how in this conception, the value of a person is not tied in any way to their economic productivity; the Torah speaks of a person’s hand faltering and requiring assistance, yet still remaining your brother – וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ. Other people don’t need to achieve anything or make money to be valid in their humanness or worthy of your respect and support. 

The Rambam famously taught that the highest level of charity is helping people get on their own feet – the ultimate and most literal fulfillment of helping your brother stand alongside you.

In the Torah’s primeval story of the dawn of humanity, Cain fatefully asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question deserves scrupulous attention, not just because we read the story and know that Cain is attempting to cover up his crime, but because it is the great unanswered question of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Torah and all of human history.

The pregnant silence in the story is jarring; when we read about the obligations we have toward our brother, we should consider them in light of the Torah’s first brothers – perhaps suggesting that yes, you are indeed your brother’s keeper. 

Echoing the Genesis story, the Ramban famously wrote to his son that humans have no natural hierarchy; nobody is better than you, and you’re better than nobody. Humans are brothers; the Torah speaks of what we owe each other as a result of our fraternal bond; our obligations to each other are born of sameness, not of difference. The interpersonal mitzvos are obligations between equals – from human to human; horizontal, and not vertical.

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – it goes far beyond money, encompassing your time, energy, and emotions, even to the point of manual labor:

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ – If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must surely raise it together. (Deut 22:4)

Beyond your brother, or the people you’d want to help, you are even obligated to help the people you don’t:

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ – When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless surely help raise it. (Ex 23:5)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes the common tendency humans have to give up on people who seem to attract calamity and misfortune; it would be far easier to cut them loose. The Torah speaks against the backdrop of such wayward thinking and reminds us that this person is your brother; you cannot give up on him. You must persist in helping, even if he fails over and over again – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב / הָקֵם תָּקִים.

However, this unilateral obligation is ripe for abuse, giving cheats and crooks a religiously sanctioned opportunity to exploit good people. The Kli Yakar offers a sharp caveat; you must only persist in helping people who are at least trying to help themselves – עִמּוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi piercingly suggests that it is not actually possible to help someone who won’t help themselves; the mitzvah is only to help, not enable. But so long as they’re trying, don’t walk away; figure it out together – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ / הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ. 

Our sages suggest that we should be grateful for cheats and crooks; otherwise, we’d be guilty over each and every person we fail to help.

While many mitzvos and rituals have an accompanying blessing to initiate the action, the Rashba notes that interpersonal mitzvos do not have such a blessing; making a blessing before helping another person would be dehumanizing, instrumentalizing a person into an object you do a mitzvah with, eroding the mitzvah entirely.

The Torah has a prominent spiritual dimension, but the interpersonal aspect of the Torah is a coequal, interdependent, and reciprocal component. It can be easy to get carried away with the spiritual trappings of helping people without being concerned about the person, but that’s what it’s all about – the other person is your brother, and you need to relate to him in that way.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner was a Rosh Yeshiva renowned for his wit. Sick in hospital, a student came to visit his teacher and mentor. The great rabbi asked his guest why he had come, and the young man responded that it was a great mitzvah to visit the sick. Characteristically, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

If we are more concerned about lazy freeloaders who exploit public resources than disadvantaged people who need a leg up, it is only misdirection from the lesser angels of our nature; moral indignation that permits acting on envy and hate under a cloak of virtue. The Torah articulates a clear skew and strong preference toward taking action that helps others; the marginal cost of not helping is unacceptable.

Tzedaka is not charity or philanthropy. Less fortunate isn’t a euphemism; it’s a self-evident and observable fact. It’s entitled to think it’s not fair that you have to give something up so someone else can benefit; it’s about justice, not fairness. Giving your money to others is explicitly a zero-sum game. By telling us to do it anyway, the Torah explicitly dismisses this objection as irrelevant, revealing that thinking in terms of winning and losing is an entirely incorrect perspective to bring to the interaction.

Your choice isn’t whether to help others; it’s who to help and how – which charities to give to, and in what quantities. It’s the right thing to do; it is wrong not to.

It is important to be a good steward of capital; will this contribution be the highest and best use of your resources? But while it’s vital to think in terms of impact and effectiveness, be mindful that some people aren’t ever going to get by on their own. The widows and orphans of the world aren’t going to be okay because you wrote a check one time or sent a care package for Pesach; people experiencing chronic illness aren’t going to recover because you visited them once or hosted a fundraiser a while back. 

The Torah calls for your continued interest and persistent involvement, not a one-off act; a mode of being, a mentality of feeling obligated to intervene for people who need help today and, in all likelihood, will still need help tomorrow and the day after as well.

Your brothers need you; you must persist.