Our Torah portion begins with an instruction for soldiers going out to war. Throughout the ages, soldiers often regarded the most primitive and bestial conduct as legitimate with regards to the citizens of conquered territory. The Jewish soldier was, perhaps surprisingly, permitted to marry a non-Jewish woman in that circumstance — but had to conduct himself appropriately. While women might actually dress themselves up to be desired as spouses, he was told, wait. See how she looks when she’s thinking about the family from which you are taking her. See how she’ll handle the change of lifestyle that comes with being part of the Jewish people. And then, if you insist…
Our Sages teach that even in this case, there is a subtle, implied warning in the text of the Torah. The Torah jumps from this topic to a man who married two women — one whom he loves, and one whom he hates. The Torah says that no matter how he feels, the family patriarch must give his firstborn son the birthright, even if that son comes from the hated spouse. And then the Torah jumps once again to an apparently-unrelated topic: that of the wayward son who sets out on a life of crime. Many Sages argued that the criteria for a wayward son were never actually met — that it was merely a warning.
The warning that the Torah is giving us with the juxtaposition of these three topics is the following: if someone is so foolish as to go ahead and marry a non-Jewish woman whom he met on captured ground, he is going to end up with a hated spouse. This isn’t an appropriate way to find a partner in his mission to propagate the Jewish people. They will fall into discord. Their son will grow up confused and rebellious — he will have a wayward son as a result.
The inevitable question then arises: if this is such a bad idea, then why permit it in the first place? Why is the Torah letting a soldier marry a woman from captured territory? The simple answer is, possibly, that because this isn’t a guarantee of failure, and it is a hard test for a young soldier to withstand, the prohibition would have led to worse problems.
But there is an additional point. The lesson of this portion has lasted far longer than its possible real-world implementation. The time period during which this situation might have arisen is but a small fraction of Jewish history — but to this day, people study the lesson implied by the sequence of these topics.
The Torah is telling us that not everything permitted is necessarily a good idea. It is possible to live as a “glutton as permitted by the Torah,” staying within the bounds but hardly following the path. The Torah provides a path to follow, but a person can stay “on” the road while merely crossing back and forth like the proverbial chicken, rather than actually getting anywhere.
With Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year — the Day of Judgment — approaching, now is the time to examine our actions and see what we might do better. How do we join the path of the Jewish people, where we are now just “spinning our wheels”, if not straying off the road? If we each look for ways to improve ourselves, we can improve both ourselves and the entire world with us — and look forward to a blessed New Year.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org