WAYS & WARS
This week‘s reading contains much of the Jewish ethic of warfare, as does last week’s.
It tells us how to wage a war if there is no other way to handle a threat. It also gives a name to an enemy: Amalek.
There was a real Amalek who, according to the Torah, “met you on the road and attacked you from the rear, attacking those who were weak, when you were famished and weary – and he did not fear God” (Deut. 25:17-19).
The description of Amalek links lack of religion with lack of ethics. Amalek “did not fear God”: therefore he attacked from behind, targeted the weak and weary, and embarked on a fight without provocation.
Had Amalek really believed in God he would have been restrained by Divinely-given ethics which begin and end with honouring others.
In the view of Rav Soloveitchik, Amalek was not only a real person but a symbol. Any group which acts like Amalek is an Amalek.
Christianity’s theory, probably never actually put into practice, is that when an Amalek strikes you on the cheek you let him strike the other cheek too.
Judaism, as Ahad HaAm explains in a classical essay on Jewish and Christian ethics, is more practical and realistic. It says, remember what the first Amalek did to you; and wipe out every trace of Amalek, any Amalek.
Amalekism shames God and brings disgrace to the name of man.
THE MESSAGE OF TZITZIT
Fringes on the corners of one’s garments – a basic Jewish duty.
Jewish life has developed a special response to the command, the tallit. The b’rachah when we put it on says, however, “God commanded us to be wrapped in the fringes (the tzitzit)”. We don’t speak of wrapping ourselves in the tallit but in the fringes.
Rabbi Yechezkel of Kobrin was asked why this is the b’rachah we say. He could have said, “The tallit is only the excuse for the tzitzit; the mitzvah is the tzitzit, not the garment”.
What he did say was, “The tzitzit are what is important, and the human being should learn from them. The tzitzit hang down and seem too lowly to bear any importance.
“The same goes with human beings. The person who is modest and humble is really high in God’s estimation, whilst the person who is high and mighty is really of no account.”
A REPROACH TO GOD
A person executed by stoning by order of the court was subsequently hanged, but his body was not to be left hanging overnight “for he that is hanged is a reproach to God” (Deut. 21:23).
Why does this shame God?
Because, says Rashi, even a criminal is a human being with dignity – even towards a criminal there is a duty to love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:18) – and to leave his body hanging offends the God in Whose image he and every human being is made.
Rashbam suggests that the Hebrew word which is usually translated “God” can be understood here in its alternative sense of judges.
When the public see the criminal’s body they may well curse the judges who sentenced him to death; they would accuse the judges of not trying hard enough to find reasons to prevent the accused from being executed.
The Vilna Ga’on has another approach altogether. He points out that Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses the word “God” to supply the sense of a superlative.
Thus Nimrod was a mighty warrior “unto God”, i.e. an exceedingly great warrior; Nineveh was a great city “unto God” – even in God’s terms. As a result, leaving a man hanging overnight is to be understood as an extreme disgrace.
This interpretation may derive support when one examines the context. The verse continues, “You shall not defile the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance”.
Note that the passage speaks of “the Lord your God”, as do other verses in the parashah – see, for example, Deut. 21:10 and 22:5.
The use of the name “God” on its own in our verse without the additional name “the Lord” would be unusual, so if “God” appears without any qualification it may be meant in a different sense, as the Vilna Ga’on suggests.
By Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com