Rabbi David Walk
With Labor Day behind us it feels like summer is over. I know the season extends until the autumnal equinox at 10:29 PM (Eastern Daylight Time) on September 22nd. But once you've put away your straw hat and school has begun, it's fall. So, it's time to close the books on the summer of 2014, and don't think that we'll miss it. With war in Syria, Iraq and the Ukraine, not to mention how badly the Red Sox are playing, it was a summer to forget. The strongest memories for me, though, are the events in Israel. The renewal of the Hamas wars brought death and destruction to the Arabs in Gaza, and fear and anxiety to all the Israelis in the flight paths of the rockets shot indiscriminately at our communities. Thank God for Iron Dome and Divine serendipity or this summer could have been truly tragic. However, one image, not reported in newspapers or 24 hour news stations, will long color my recollections of the summer of 2014. A young man from Stamford went into Gaza with the IDF. He reported to his parents that while marching by some fig trees in the Palestinian enclave they asked if they could pick some figs. The commanding officer strongly denied the request by telling his troops that Israeli soldiers are not thieves. This moral military attitude derives from this week's Torah reading.
At the very beginning of this week's Torah reading, we have the mysterious mitzva of yifat to'ar, or the captivating captive. This commandment describes how a victorious Jewish soldier must slowly and carefully convert and marry any woman captured in war before even considering having relations with her. In previous articles I've compared this attitude with the ubiquitous rapes which follow in the wake of triumphant non-Jewish armies. This idea that even in war time we can't totally lose our humanity and morality was demonstrated by Israeli concern for Arab casualties, and contrasted by Arab celebration over Jewish casualties. And, of course, was totally lost on the main stream media. We learn that there is a strict code of ethics even under fire from this prime example. However, the context of the parsha goes on to teach an even greater truth.
A few verses later the Torah describes another tragic circumstance. A child who has no moral compass in relations with parents and in interface with the world should be executed. This law of the ben sorer umoreh, or the wayward youth, is very disturbing. We seemingly go against all of our normal procedures by executing someone out of fear for future behavior. We are partially saved from this dilemma by a statement in the Talmud: Can it be that if he eats a 'tartemar' of meat and drinks half a 'log' of wine, his parents will take him out to be stoned?! Rather, such a case never occurred and will never occur. If so, why was it written? 'Derosh vekabel sachar' - Learn it and be rewarded (Sanhedrin 71a). Rav Yehudah Amital OBM, late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, said that this theoretical mitzva was meant to teach a vital lesson – the importance of taking responsibility for one's acts. As he put it: 'Even in a state of war, away from home and family, where man's moral standards balance precariously on a thin wire, he cannot use the war setting as an excuse to lose his balance, to take advantage of a woman even momentarily, and then cast her aside without an afterthought for her well-being. One must realize the gravity of his actions, even in warfare.' The beautiful captive teaches that we must accept responsibility for our personal behavior even in war, and Rabbi Amital avers that the wayward youth teaches us that in some way we must take responsibility even for future acts.
This idea, I believe, can be used to connect the many diverse mitzvot in our Torah reading. Many of the mitzvot appearing this week are about unplanned circumstances. I didn't plan to encounter that chick in its nest, that lost animal wandering in the field or that burdened donkey on the road, but nevertheless I must still behave ethically. In other words, just because I didn't plan these events doesn't mean that I can ignore my religious duty. I understand that if I build a house I must install a railing wherever safety demands. But that's because I'm the one planning the house. I might have mistakenly thought that this might not be true of a context outside my control. But I'd be wrong.
Rav Moshe Lichtenstein sees the unifying principle of the parsha as trying to get the observant Jew to see the world not just from one's own limited perspective but from the point of view of the other as well. This is clear in the case of the beautiful captive and the lost animal. However, he goes on to explain that is also true of the wayward youth, whom he describes in this manner: 'His gluttonous consumption of food and drink likewise points to an egotistic personality. He thinks only about himself and does whatever he wishes, without consideration for anyone else.' We must never look at ourselves as the center of the universe, rather we must include the needs and perspectives of others in our world view.
Without saying it explicitly, I think that Rav Lichtenstein agrees with Rav Amital. They are both describing their own Torah definition for leading a life of responsibility. What is responsibility if not seeing our lives as a series of actions taken to make this world better for ourselves and others? When checking a dictionary or thesaurus we see the normal synonyms of responsibility are authority, control, or power. The Jewish list would include words like duty, obligation or moral behavior.
This idea is critical as we move through Elul towards Rosh Hashanah, also called Yom Hadin or Day of Judgment. We should not only analyze how responsible we were last year, but, perhaps, more importantly how we will deport ourselves next year. Remember what George Bernard Shaw said, 'We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.'