Deuteronomy 21:10 to 25:19
This week’s text presents 72 commandments for the Israelites to follow as they enter the Promised Land. For modern man, they shape the world that God desires…. But, how should we treat those laws we don’t understand?
Last week we read about Justice. Torah tells us “justice, justice you shall pursue.” I commented that our sages taught that the double “Justice” tells us that we should follow the “Justice” of Torah law…. And the “Justice” of compromise that reflects the changes of time and circumstances.
This week’s parsha contains the laws that the judges consider. According to a count by Maimonides, this week’s parsha contains 72 mitzvot… more than any other Torah portion. These mitzvot bring the world of God into our daily lives. They touch on earthly activities such as tilling the soil, earning a livelihood, clothing, grooming, building a house, and how we treat our neighbors. Nehama Leibowitz in her book Studies in Devarim/Deuteronomy (p.210) states “The mitzvot elevate our daily, egoistic activities to the level of Divine service.” The parsha we read contains a long list of mitzvot that combine to create a guidebook on how to create a world of shalom … a world where we work toward peace between family members, and even with the animals around us.
The impact of some of most of these laws is immediately apparent, some applied only to the world of the Biblical authors (with interpretations that impact us), and others that are really not understood.
Rabbi Kook (1865-1935, First Chief Rabbi of Pre-State Israel) looked at two of the laws with unclear purpose. I would like to focus on these two laws.
“If a parent has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the residents of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deut. 21:18-21)
Death to the defiant son…!! That seems like a really severe punishment. Taking away TV privileges, or snacks after meals, …. Or maybe even administer a spanking….. But death? Rabbi Kook notes that he could not find a single instance where this law was ever carried out…… Then what its purpose? Two comments – First, there are other laws in Torah with a death penalty,. But, for many of these laws, it is doubtful that the punishment was carried out. However, the death penalty does get our attention. It says – Here is a serious offense. It is almost like using underlining or bold face to highlight the crime and its punishment. So, maybe the punishment of death is used just to draw attention.
– Second, I have read this text to my children and grandchildren. They know that I am not about to “stone them to death.” But, they also know that, according to Torah, obeying their parents is important…. And this is why Rabbi Kook feels this law is important. Not that it will be carried out; but, that it will be discussed and studied. If the lesson is learned, the text has been successful.
The second law Rabbi Kook discussed. “You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.” (Deut. 22:11)
Why can’t these materials be mixed in clothing? We have learned that the High Priest wears garments that mix these fabrics… but, it is forbidden for the common person.
Wool – from a sheep – and linen – from the flax plant – are considered the two major fibers available to ancient civilizations.. According to Talmud (Shabbat 26b) whenever the Torah speaks of garments without specifying the material, it only refers to garments of wool or linen.
This law is a prime example of a chok, a decree for which we do not know the reason or the logic behind the law.
Rabbi Kook made the following comments about this law: “It is not that a chok has no reason, or no reason that we are capable of grasping. Rather, this category of mitzvot belongs to a future reality that is different from out own. At that future time, the purpose of these decrees will become clear.” Rabbi Kook presents an idea expressed by the Kabalists that in the future animals may develop into a state similar to the current level of humans. Laws like this help prepare mankind for this advanced state. This concept is also expressed in the Rabbi’s writings regarding vegetarianism, Temple sacrifices, and not eating milk and meat together.
A second concept presented by Rabbi Kook states that “the use of linen from the flax plant does not raise any moral dilemmas. But the use of wool necessitates a mile censure from the standpoint of absolute morality: “Man, in his boundless egocentricity, approaches the poor cow and sheep. From one he seizes its milk, and from the other, its fleece…. There would be no impropriety in taking the wool were the sheep burdened by its load; but we remove the wool when its natural owner needs it. Intellectually, we recognize that this is a form of theft… oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong.” (Otzarot HaRe’iyah, vol. II, p. 97) “
Rabbi Kook continues, “In order to distinguish between the use of wool and linen, and instill a sensitivity towards animal welfare that we will need in future times, the Torah decreed that these two fibers should not be worn together, Utilization of the flax plant and the manipulation of sheep are not – in absolute terms morally equivalent.”
However, Rabbi Kook sees the use of mixed fabrics in the priests clothing differently. “Then the principle of bechol me’odecha, serving God will all of our possessions, takes force. Here it is appropriate that, out of their own free will, the animals will contribute their part for the sake of the universe’s spiritual elevation.” (Rabbi Kook’s ideas are from the Website, Rav Kook Torah, presenting an article Sha’atnez – A Glimpse into the Future”, http://ravkooktorah.org/KEDOSHIM58.htm )
There are two of the laws from the 72 presented in this week’s parsha. The reason for some is obvious…. Others – not so apparent. But all 72 are worth our attention. Together they shape the world that Torah envisions for us.