Shortly before I got married, I entered headlong into a massive controversy brewing among my friends, a number of whom were getting married about the same time as me. The question we grappled with was how to treat our wives right after we got married. The simple answer would have been: “well, treat them well.” But of course, any student of Talmudic law will not be satisfied with such an oversimplified answer, and will feel the need to delve deeper and deeper into the minutia, decoding the word “well,” to define its precise meaning.
The focal point of the raging debate was should we go “all out” in the way we interact with our spouse right after we get married. Should we write them little love notes daily, make heart shaped mosaics of rose petals for them to see when they get home from work, cook them four course dinners, compliment them multiple times daily on their intelligence, sensitivity, and looks, and hire a mariachi group to softly serenade us while we eat candlelit dinners overlooking the Atlantic Ocean crashing ashore (O.K., we didn’t really discuss the mariachis, who wants five guys in glittering pants crashing your romantic dinner)? It may seem to you that this is obviously the ideal way for a person to treat their newly-wed spouse, what exactly could be the other position in this debate?
Fear not, the other stance has some very solid grounding. It posits that if you treat your wife that way for those first few months, you are setting yourself up for failure. Seven years down the line, you will have three little kids running around the house, you’ll have to work sixty hours a week just to be able to afford formula, diapers, healthcare and tuition, and you’ll have decidedly less time to cook four course dinners. When you come home from work your wife will be buried in mounds of laundry, and all you’ll be greeted with at the door is two walking smelly diapers and a mini-Picasso who has been using the wall as his canvas. Suddenly all the mariachis are going to seem as far as the International Space Station. The only love poem you’ll be able to think of is, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I wished there would only be one dirty diaper, but there are actually two!”
Your wife is going to feel very let down. Where is her romantic guy, who just wanted to stare into her eyes for hours and tell her the top twenty reasons why she was so great? Where is the guy who used to cook her gourmet dinners, write her love letters, and pick her up from work on a white horse and whisk her off to a delicious picnic spread at the side of a quiet lake? Who kidnapped the wonderful man she married and replaced him with Mr. Harried Bland?
The second position states that it is better to start off life normal; tuna casserole and boiled green beans for dinner, a maximum of two compliments a day, and no coffee or cola past seven PM. Doing this will set the stage for a blissful marriage in which no one will ever feel let down, neglected, forgotten, because it will have the same tone throughout.
So what’s a guy supposed to do? My answer is based on a phrase that has been a guiding light in my marriage, and one that applies in all areas of life equally well. “If you do when you can, when you can’t, they’ll know you would’ve if you could’ve!” Everyone knows that a person can’t function at peak performance all the time, that is part of the human condition. If when you have the ability to operate at your maximum, you do, that is a clear indicator that your heart is truly behind the endeavor fully, it is only circumstance that gets in the way. However, if when you have the ability to operate at a high level, you don’t, the other person will feel that you never invested yourself fully in the relationship, and will forever think that the reason you’re operating at half-speed is because that is simply who you are, and what you want to do. Using this concept, if I were to go “all out” in the beginning of my marriage, and give my wife everything I had the power to give, when I wouldn’t be able to later on in life, my wife would have the confidence that if only I could be doing more, I would be.
This helps us understand the period we just entered called the month of Elul. Elul is the final month before the High Holidays. Traditionally it has been a month in which people work extra hard in their spiritual pursuits, trying to score as many points as they can before the buzzer, before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. Some people add an extra set of prayers to their daily routine, some people learn an extra five or ten minutes of Torah a day, and some people go out of their way to be extra nice to strangers during this month.
Some people see this as hypocritical, that every year suddenly just before the High Holidays we begin to work on ourselves, and then as soon as Yom Kippur passes, we go back to our old routine. But the truth is that G-d understands that we can’t necessarily run at peak performance all year round, so He gives us a time when He tells us that He will be extra close to us. The Hebrew letters that make up the world Elul are famously the acronym for the verse (Song of Songs 6:3) “I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me.” It is G-d’s way of telling us that this is a special time, like the beginning of a marriage when the two parties feel extra close to one another.
If during this time we go the extra mile, then G-d knows that in our hearts we really want to be living on that high spiritual plane all year long, but we are simply bogged down by the challenges of daily life. And it’s not only G-d who knows that, but we begin to internalize that message as well. This way, throughout the year we can slowly try to incorporate into our life the practices that we instilled in ourselves over the course of Elul. So, if we struggle with making Elul into the spiritually infused month of the year that it was designed to be, let’s remember, “If you do when you can, when you can’t, He’ll know you would’ve of if you could of!”
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s portion Moshe commands the people to set up a meticulous judicial system in the homeland the Jews are about to inherit, including courts in every city.
“Judges and officers shall you place for yourself, in all of your gates which HaShem your G-d gives you…” [16:18]
The commentators all discuss the fact that the Torah says that the judges and officers should be “for yourself,” in the singular. This means that besides the general command that the people set up a judicial system for the nation, we are also being told to set up some sort of judicial system for ourselves. Moshe was hinting to the Jewish people that before they take care of judging other people they should be judge themselves.
That being the case, what exactly are the judges and officers that we should set up for ourselves? I would understand the idea of judging ourselves, or judging the actions that we are about to engage in to make sure they are in line, but what exactly would be the role of the officers which we should be setting up for ourselves?
We can perhaps understand this using an insight from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (a.k.a. the Ramchal, 1707-1746, Italy-Amsterdam-Israel) in his magnum opus, the Messilat Yesharim. In the third chapter, when discussing the different aspects of the character trait called watchfulness, the Ramchal says that there are two times when a person needs to contemplate his actions to ensure that nothing he does is negative or harmful. The first is at a time when he is not involved in anything. At some point during the day, a person should set aside time to meditatively look through all his actions and judge them. However, a person also needs to pay careful attention to what he is doing while it occurs, because often a person can get caught up in the emotion and charge of the moment and forget or disregard what he previously thought about.
An example of this would be someone thinking over his day’s actions, and noticing that he got angry and lost control that day. He then thinks about how negative that experience was, and comes up with strategies to avoid losing control the next day. However, the next day, when one of his children spills hot chocolate over his freshly pressed pants, he will need to once again stop and think about what he is about to do. Is he going to yell at the child? How loudly? Is he going to say things that attack the child as a person, as opposed to what they did? In this way he thinks about his actions twice, once away from the situation when his emotion is not charged, and once in the heat of the moment.
Those two thought processes are the judges and officers that Moshe was telling us to set up for ourselves. The judge is the time we spend removed from all other activity, thinking about what we have done or will do, and judging those actions. The officer’s job is to enforce those judgments during the moment of action, when we need to regulate ourselves a little more carefully due to the strong emotions that are at play.
With our judges and officers in place, we will be able to properly reach the places we want to go, and lead the lives we want to lead!
The Jewish People stand on the brink of putting down roots in a land in which they hope to live peacefully forever. Moshe dictates to them a number of commandments that will allow for a stable society. The first commandment is to set up courts in all the cities. Additionally, Moshe warns the people to appoint honest people as the judges, ones who won’t accept bribery or favors. Juxtaposed to this is the prohibition against planting asheira trees, trees which served as idols. The juxtaposition underscores the idea that a corrupt judge is similar to an asheira tree. Just as the tree looks beautiful and productive from the outside, yet is really a vehicle to entice people to serve foreign gods, so too, a corrupt leader appears righteous and upstanding, yet he really lures the people into lawlessness and chaos. This is followed by the prohibition against offering sacrifices that have blemishes.
The Torah then discusses the capital punishment of idol-worshippers. We learn many of the laws that apply to capital cases from this portion of Torah. Circumstantial evidence, or testimony by a single witness, is considered invalid, and there is a very thorough cross-examination required before condemning anyone.
Next we are told that when we are not sure of the law, we must bring it to the judges, “who will be in those days.” This indicates that even if we feel that the judges and leaders of our times are not as great as those of previous generations, we must nonetheless follow them just as the previous generations followed their leaders.
The Torah inserts a verse reminding us to listen to the Rabbis, as is stated (Deut. 17:11), “In accord with the Torah that they instruct you, and upon the law that they state to you, are you to act; do not deviate from the word they tell you, neither right or left.” This verse could not have been telling us to simply listen to the Rabbis telling us to keep the clear Biblical prohibitions, as the Torah itself constantly tells us that. Rather, this verse is the source of the mandate the Rabbis have to make a fence around the Torah, that is, to pass laws that will keep us from violating Biblical commandments. (An example of this is the Rabbinic prohibition against playing a musical instrument on Shabbos. This prohibition was set to prevent someone from fixing a broken instrument, such as by replacing a broken guitar string, which would be a Biblical violation of Shabbos.)
The Torah then lays down the rules for picking a king. The king must be righteous and of Jewish origin, he must not have too many wives lest they distract him from his duties, he may not have too many horses lest he initiate a return to Egypt (where the best horses came from at the time), and he may not have too much money lest it lead to corruption and excessive taxation (I always thought the Torah was Republican). The king must have two sifrei Torah written for him, one that he keeps at home and one that he brings with him everywhere to constantly remind him Who is the King of all kings
Next, the Torah reminds the Jews of the gifts they are required to give the Kohen (he gets no portion of the land since he is supposed to live among the people and provide them with spiritual support. In return, they support him with all kinds of gifts). These include a portion of all grain, oil, wine, and wool sheerings produced by Jewish farmers, and select parts of some slaughtered animals. The Kohen can bring sacrifices to the Temple at any time, and perform the services associated with his sacrifice. However, regarding communal offerings, there was a system in which the various Kohen families would take turns performing all Temple services, one each week.
Here the Torah commands us not to seek out the future through various supernatural forces such as sorcery, divination using bones or omens, witchcraft, or astrology. G-d tells us (Deut. 18:13), “You shall be wholehearted with Ha-shem, your G-d,” meaning that you should have faith that G-d will take care of you, without having to look to other sources to discover your future. (Sorry, you are going to have to stop calling those psychic hotlines!) G-d tells us that He will send us prophets when He feels we need to know what lays in store for us. If a prophet predicts something and it doesn’t happen, we can know that he is a fraud.
The Torah then discusses the laws of the city of refuge, a place to which someone who murders someone unintentionally (but in a way which could have been prevented if more caution was exercised) must exile himself. Next is a warning not to move a boundary marker so as to steal land that rightfully belongs to a neighbor.
This is followed by the laws of the conspiring witnesses. Two people come to court and give testimony, e.g. “On Sunday, March13th, we saw Mike break Sam’s window in Detroit, and now he must pay Sam $400 to fix it.” Then, a second group of witnesses comes and says to the first group, “How can you say you saw that, you were with us on the 13th of March in Acapulco?” The Torah tells us that whatever verdict the conspiring witnesses were trying to attain against the defendant is now given to them, so, in this case, the witnesses would actually have to pay Mike the $400 they were trying to make him pay.
An exact procedure for war follows. A special Kohen, anointed specifically to lead the people to battle, would address the people and tell them that anyone who was faint of heart due to his sins, who betrothed a woman but did not marry her, built a house but did not settle in it, or planted a vineyard but did not harvest the fruits, should go back from the front lines. Then, before attacking a city, the Jews had to offer the other party a peaceful resolution. Only after being refused were they allowed to attack. While lying siege on a city, the Torah forbids cutting down fruit trees to build siege implements such as battering rams or siege towers.
The Torah concludes the Parsha with the laws pertaining to an unsolved murder found in the open, but I have already written way too much, so I encourage you to take out a Chumash, and see what the Torah commands us to do when we have an unsolved murder (and no, we do not post reward for anyone who calls a tip line with information that leads to the arrest of the killer- there were no phones back then!).
Quote of the Week: The really happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour. ~ A. Gombiner
Random Fact of the Week: A Boy Scout must earn 21 badges before he is eligible to become an Eagle Scout.
Funny Line of the Week: Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it!
Have a Splendiferous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham