Turning potential into reality (Radical Torah repost)
August 21, 2009
Here's the post I made about this week's Torah portion back in 2006, written for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom (and while I'm at it: chodesh tov / happy new month, since today is the first day of the lunar month of Elul -- and to my Muslim friends I wish a Ramadan mubarak!)
Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her." (Deuteronomy 20:5-7)
That war is a necessary part of life seems implicit in Torah. Especially in the latter part of the chumash, there's no shortage of preparing for battle and taking the field against enemies. For those of us who find militarism uncomfortable, who thrill more to the still small voice than to trumpets blaring into battle, this part of our text may seem unbearably martial.
But woven into our text are startling admissions that war is an imperfect answer. Even if the primary narrative presumes war's importance, there's a secondary narrative peeking through. There's a glimpse of that narrative in this week's portion, Shoftim, in the striking address the officials are meant to give to the assembled troops.
The officials speak to those who have built homes, but not dedicated them; those who have planted vines, but not harvested them; and those who are betrothed, but not yet wed. They address those soldiers whose lives are as-yet potential, who have taken steps to build what they want but have not yet seen those steps through to fruition.
A home built but not dedicated is a structure without spirit. Once a home is blessed -- with words of sanctification, and with the presence of its inhabitants living in it and gracing it with mindfulness -- it becomes something new. In our post-Temple age, we are each called-upon to make our table a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary, where God's presence can be known and celebrated. Reading that idea back into pre-Temple days is anachronistic at best, but in this exhortation to return home and dedicate one's house I see a prefiguring of our understanding that a sanctified home becomes a dwelling-place for divine Presence.
A vineyard planted but not harvested is a place of future fruitfulness. The vines have been chosen and cultivated, watered and weeded, and now they must be stewarded until they are ready to bear their grapes. And a grape-grower's responsibility doesn't end when his grapes are harvested; then comes the obligation to carry the fruit to market, to press the grapes into juice and guard it into wine, to elevate the wine in blessing... A man who has planted vines but not harvested them is poised in potential, and he deserves to enjoy the fruits of his labors (both literal and metaphorical).
A betrothal waiting for a wedding is a relationship on the cusp of maturing. Today most of us live in a paradigm wherein we choose our partners and consciously create lives in tandem. But even in antiquity, when marriages were made rather than chosen, I imagine the period before a wedding was one of anticipation. For the couple in question, life was about to change, and radically so. Sending a man to war, leaving his betrothed waiting for that shift, risked the possibility that that consummation might never come.
And Torah argues against all three of these scenarios. It is unfair, Torah says, to send a young man into battle with these possible avenues of fruitfulness unfulfilled. Our lives are meant to follow an arc. We mature, we take on responsibilities, we embrace opportunities. We build and sanctify structures to house our lives, we nurture the earth and the work of our hands, we connect in loving partnership. These are arguably the most important work we can do. The need to do these things trumps the need to fight.
In today's world, as in the world of Torah, young people go off to battle, some by choice, and some by obligation. In today's world, as in the world of Torah, towns are attacked and dwellings besieged. (In today's world, unlike in the world of Torah, we no longer consider it honorable or permissible to put all the men of a conquered town to the sword. Some things have changed, and we thank God for that.)
But how different might our world be if, in today's world as in the world of Torah, we followed the teachings of parashat Shoftim and exempted from service those whose lives are not yet ripe? Would our military policies be different if the young stayed home to establish households and vineyards and marriages, and only those who had already lived full lives placed themselves on the front lines? How would an army of those who have known the joys and sorrows of household life differ from the armies we know now? Would such soldiers be more measured, more careful, more inclined to value the simple human lives on both sides of whatever conflict called them forth onto the battlefield?