This week’s parashah includes more mitzvot than any other in the Torah – somewhere between 70 and 85, depending on how they are counted. They cover the entire range of human activity – from marriage and divorce to business ethics; from warfare to the correct treatment of animals; from hygiene to public safety and purity – and they appear to be assembled somewhat randomly.
Yet Devarim is a single text – Moses’ great valedictory sermon – and as such, forms a cogent whole, which means that the order of the mitzvot in this parashah is significant. The rabbis interpret some of the juxtapositions quite creatively; two follow.
The parashah begins with three consecutive mitzvot: a) how to treat the beautiful woman captured in war; b) the prohibition of disinheriting the son of a hated wife in favour of the son of a beloved wife; c) the elimination of the rebellious son. The rabbis comment:
The Torah speaks only to the evil impulse, for if God does not permit the beautiful captive, he will marry her anyway. Yet if he marries her, he will come to hate her and will eventually father a rebellious son with her. (Rashi to Devarim 21:11, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 1)
The parashah ends with two mitzvot: a) the requirement to have honest weights and measures; b) the obligation to wipe out the memory of our arch-enemy Amalek. The rabbis comment:
If you deceive people with weights and measures, you will worry about the assault of the enemy. (Rashi to Devarim 25:17, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 8)
These explanations may seem a little far-fetched and devised solely to explain away the juxtaposition, but I believe they are underpinned by a profound, yet simple, psychological message, one that is certainly germane to the upcoming Yom Tov season.
A common Chassidic interpretation of the ‘war’ with which our parashah begins is that is refers not just to an external war against a physical enemy, but to the internal war that each of fights with our own demons. Going ‘out to war’ is a symbol for the inner struggle that constitutes a good part of all of human experience. And if we don’t win the battle against crass desires, selfishness and the tendency to exploit others, we risk transporting the unresolved demons into relationships that could fail, and, in turn, dumping the problems on to our children. This is the meaning of the juxtaposition of the three mitzvot at the start of the parashah. Similarly, when we exploit others by robbing them with dishonest weights and measures, we should recognise (and fear) that we have really fallen victim to the demons within – the Amalek that prompts to behave selfishly and destructively.
The fact that the Torah worries not just about how we behave, but also our motivation, is illustrated by the final phrase of the mitzvah of restoring lost property, also in this parashah. Having told us that we must not pretend that we haven’t seen the item, rather attempt to return it to its owner, the Torah says:
לא תוכל להתעלם (Devarim 22:3)
This phrase is usually translated as ‘you shouldn’t hide yourself’, or similar, but it really means ‘you should not be able to hide yourself’ – i.e. you should not be capable of turning aside when you encounter an item that has been lost by another.
So the Torah regulates how we think – in this case, about a lost object –
but this is only illustrative. We need to
understand what motivates us: why and how we think about things, and to try to
uncover what unarticulated needs or desires prompt us to act. Only then can we avoid pernicious chains of
experience in our lives and the lives of those we love.