The opening law of this week's reading deals with the 'captive woman'. In a passage that severely grates against our ethical sensibilities, the Torah grants a victorious Jewish army certain sexual rights over female captives. The soldier must first of all take the woman he desires back to his home, leave her to grieve her losses, shave her hair and pare her nails, and more. Once this process is complete, the soldier has a right to make this woman his wife, via a consummation of the relationship. If he no longer desires this, she becomes a free and equal citizen of Israel.
The rabbis were shocked by the these laws. Indeed, they had pioneered a legal system in which conjugal rape was forbidden. Indeed, the Israeli Supreme Court appealed to these Jewish laws in order to affirm that conjugal rape is, by default, illegal in Israel. This law was established by the Rabbis well over a millennium ago. By contrast, it wasn’t made illegal in Finland until 1994. Lichtenstein didn’t make it illegal until 2001. No wonder the rabbis – given their views on this issue – were dismayed by the provisions of our Torah reading, and its treatment of the captive female. This was their defense: these laws, they argued, were a concession to the evil inclination of primitive men in primitive times.
In times of war, soldiers are prone to act in horrendous ways. God knew that if he commanded an ancient people not to rape in times of war, some of them wouldn't listen. But a larger number of potential rapists would listen, so the reasoning runs, if they were told that they could have their evil way, but in a restrained and delayed fashion. The picture that emerges still isn’t pretty, but the rabbis comforted themselves with the notion that this was merely a compromise with the evil inclination of mankind. Presumably, as our ethical sensibilities evolve with time, this dispensation for times of war will, to all intents and purposes, be annulled.
And, indeed, the Rabbinic understanding of the captive woman provided future Rabbis with a template for dealing with other difficult laws and texts. Maimonides argues that animal sacrifice was a compromise with a time and culture. In modern times, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, of blessed memory, argued that the Biblical laws of slavery were only ever intended as a concession and compromise with an evil institution; an institution that God always planned to wean us away from. And Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory, wrote, regarding Rabbeinu Gershom's edict against bigamy:
[I]t might be contended that while a given procedure, for reasons we can only conjecture, had been enabled by the Torah, it had ab initio never been truly sanctioned, morally, but only permitted, if not quite at the level of [the Talmudic response to the captive woman, that] לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע, ("The Torah [merely] related to man's evil inclination") then in a similar vein. From this perspective the [edict of Rabbeinu Gershom] would constitute spiritual progress as a collective [act of] kaddesh azmekha b'mutar lekha ("Sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you").
As the Midrash relates to our reading, the Torah always contained a hint that the very treatment of the captive woman which it had permitted, was far from ideal. The Midrashic route to this insight stems from the project that we discussed last week, in which the Rabbis would seek to understand the seemingly random order in which Moses presents the laws in Deuteronomy.
Our masters have taught “[One] good deed brings about [another] good deed, and [one] transgression brings about [another] transgression.” “And when you see among the captives a woman of pretty form [whom you desire to take for a wife. And you shall bring her into your house,] where she shall shave her head and pare her nails” (Deut. 21:11-12), so that she will not find favor in his eyes. What is written after that, “When a man has two wives [one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons]...” Two [wives] in [one] house [means] strife in the house. And moreover (ibid., cont.) “one loved and the other hated,” or both of them hated. What is written after that? “If one has a defiant and rebellious son.” Whenever anyone marries a [captive] “woman of pretty form,” there results from it a defiant and rebellious son...
In other words, the Rabbis relate to the opening sequence of laws as something like a narrative. If you take the Torah's permission to marry a captive woman, according to this narrative, only bad things will happen. You'll find yourself in one or even two unhappy marriages. There will be strife over your inheritance. Moreover, one of your children, growing up in this dysfunctional home, will become a "rebellious son." Looked at this way, it was always implied by the Torah that the permission to take a captive woman was far from ideal.
The Midrash continues with the insight that another sequence of laws in this week's reading illustrates how one good deed can lead to another.
“When you come across a bird nest…. You must surely let [the mother] go …, in order that it may be well with you and you may lengthen your life” (Deut. 22:6-7). What is written after that? “When you build a new house, [you shall make a parapet for your roof].” You will merit to build a house and make a parapet. What is written after that? “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed.” You will merit to [possess] a vineyard and to sow a field. What is written after that? “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass [together].” You will merit to [possess] oxen and asses. What is written after that? “You shall not wear interwoven stuff, [wool and flax together].” You will merit to [possess] nice clothes of wool and of linen. What is written after that? “You shall make yourselves tassels [Hebrew: tzitzit].” You shall merit the commandment of tassels. What is written after that? “When a man marries a wife.” You shall merit to [have] a wife and children. Behold, we have learned that [one] good deed brings about [another] good deed and one transgression brings about [another] transgression. Therefore these sections of the Torah are adjacent to one another.
Walking along the road, you happen upon a nest. Before you take its eggs, you shew away the mother bird to save her from extra distress. This one good deed will have consequences down the line. You'll end up owning a house. A house needs to be made safe with a parapet. As a consequence of building the parapet, you'll find that you have land in which to sew seeds. This too presents an opportunity for fulfilling God's commandments, as you refrain from mixing your seeds in a prohibited way. As a reward for this, you'll find that you come to own animals. This too presents you with an opportunity for fulfilling the commandments concerning animal welfare. And so on and so forth.
This week's Torah reading contains more laws than any other reading. But instead of a random list of 74 commandments, the Rabbis read into these laws, and their order, a number of narratives. These narratives come to teach us the basic principle that bad deeds bring bad deeds in their wake, and that good deeds bring good deeds in theirs. Moreover, we have seen that one of the fundamental ways in which later Rabbis would deal with ethically troubling texts was always waiting in one of these narratives to be discovered.
There's another lesson to be learnt from the seeming mishmash of laws that we find in this week's reading. We have agricultural laws, rubbing shoulders with civil, criminal, and ritual law. We have injunctions regarding the treatment of the vulnerable, that make obvious sense to reasonable minds, alongside a prohibition on the mixture of wool and linen that seems to make no sense at all. We have laws about conducting business fairly, alongside laws concerning the proper treatment of excrement! The scope of these laws seem to span the sublime to the ridiculous with everything in-between. And, in that wide ranging salad of laws, the Midrash sees a fundamental demand of the religious life.
Concerning the verse: ‘Lest you ponder the path of life, her ways are moveable, you can’t know them’ (Proverbs 5:6); what does it mean, ‘Lest you ponder the path of life’? Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said, ‘God says, ‘don’t sit and weigh up the commandments of the Torah,’ just as it is said ‘[who has] weighed the mountains in scales?’ (Isaiah 40:12). Don’t say that, since this one commandment is bigger than the other, I’ll perform it since the reward will be bigger, and since this one is less weighty, I won’t do it. What did the Holy One Blessed be He do? He didn’t reveal to the creation what the reward is for each commandment, so that people would do all of the commandments with simplicity/integrity.’ How do we know this? Since it says ‘her ways are moveable, you can’t know them’ (Proverbs 5:6). To what can this be compared? To a king who hired workers and took them into his orchard without explanation. And he didn’t reveal to them the wages for the orchard, so that they wouldn’t neglect the things whose pay was less, and proceed straight to the things whose pay was more. In the evening, he called each and every one. He said to him [i.e., the first worker], 'under which tree did you work?' He replied, 'under this one.' He said to him 'Pepper. It's reward is one gold coin.' He called to the next one, and said to him, 'under which tree did you work?' He replied, 'under this one,' He said to him, 'half a gold coin for the white flower.' He said [to the next one], 'under which tree did you work?' He replied 'under this one.' He said to him 'Olive. Its reward is 200 zuz.' They said to him, why didn't you to tell us which tree gives the best wage, so that we'd know to work under it? The King replied to them, 'Had I told you, how would all of my orchard been harvested?' So too, the Holy One Blessed be He, didn't reveal the reward for the commandments, apart from the most weighty of the weighty and the lightest of the light. Respecting one's father and mother is the the most weighty of the weighty, and its reward is long life, as it says (Exodus 20), 'Honour your father and your mother, in order that your days shall be lengthened. And the light one is shewing the mother bird from the nest. What is its reward? Long life, as it says [in this week's reading], 'Surely send away the mother bird... when you come across a bird’s nest… [in order that you may fare well and your days will be lengthened]’ (Deut. 22:6-7).
This Midrash raises a number of questions:
Isn't the King in this parable an unfair and unreasonable employer? His workers are right to feel hard-done by. They worked equally hard but got paid unequally.
There's a stark mismatch between the analogy and the analogue. In the analogy, the more the fruit were worth, the greater the reward, and the less the fruit were worth, the smaller the reward. But, in the analogue, we're told that the most important and the least important of the commandments have the very same reward: long life.
If God doesn't want us to calculate the reward for the commandments, why tell us that the most important and the least important commandments receive the same reward? Surely that implies that all of the commandments receive the same reward.
Perhaps the way to answer the first question is to recognise that the King, in this parable, represents God Himself. It's true that a human employer owes his employees a fair and transparent payment regime. But, if you're actually working the orchard of God Himself, then perhaps that's entirely the wrong attitude. Perhaps we should recognise that the pay isn't the point. It's simply an honour and a privilege to be doing such sacred work. As the great Rabbi Antignos used to say:
Don’t be like the slaves that serve the master in order to receive a prize, rather, be like the slaves that serve the master not in order to receive a prize, and let the awe of heaven be upon them.
When we stand in awe of God we look at every commandment as a tremendous honour – the ones that we don't understand, just as much as the ones that we do. They should all strike us as infinitely valuable, in and of themselves, and so we shouldn't be in the business of calculating their reward.
In response to the second question, perhaps we should distinguish between reward that we see in this world, and reward that we see in the next. All that the Torah tells us, in terms of personal reward, for two commandments, is that our days in this world will be lengthened. Perhaps the rewards in the afterlife will vary from commandment to commandment, just as it did in the parable, even if the reward in this world is the same for each commandment. In this way, we can reconcile the analogy and the analogue. But even if the reward in heaven does vary from commandment to commandment, like the wages in the orchard, we'd still have nothing to complain about because it was simply an honour to serve the King of Kings.
In response to the final question: note that we do not see any special correlation between longevity and keeping God's laws. People respect their parents and die young. People shew away the mother bird and die young. Indeed, the Talmud reports the tragic case of a child dying in the very process of shewing away a mother bird in order to honour his father. Rabbi Yaakov suggests that the long life in question is enjoyed only after the resurrection. But perhaps the idea is simply this: these commandments do add days to your life, but not in a way that we could ever discern. For all we know, a person might anyway have been destined to die very young, so the addition of a few days won't make a discernible difference. The earthly reward, perhaps, isn't a long life, but merely lengthened days.
With all of this in mind, we see that the reward in this world, both for the biggest and the smallest of commandments is something that we really can't discern one way or the other. Moreover, the Torah is silent about the reward there is in store for us in the world to come. And, as my wife pointed out to me, a close reading of the Midrash reveals that God doesn't tell us that shewing the mother bird away is a particularly light commandment, or that honouring parents is particularly heavy. On such issues, the Torah is silent. Rather, the Midrash relates to these commandments in this way, and is then surprised to find the same (earthly) reward associated with both. Perhaps the point of the Midrash is that we really have no clue which commandments are light, and which heavy, and that our job isn't to decide. Our job is to do them all. What's more, this week's reading teaches us that doing one will lead us to do another.
if we look towards our eternal reward as a motivation in the here and now, then, like the workers in the orchard, we'll end up feeling hard done by. But if we serve God because it's simply a privilege to be doing so, then eternal reward will be nothing more than a bonus, whatever we happen to receive.
This Midrash is tied to our reading, I think, not merely because it contains the commandment of shewing away the mother bird. At a deeper level, I think, the Rabbis are sensitive to the message that our reading communicates by combining such a wide ranging array of seemingly unrelated commandments. The idea is this: don't think that one of the 74 is better than the other. Perhaps it is. But that's not for you to calculate.
This hits upon a very common feature of the religious life. Too often, we keep the commandments that we feel comfortable keeping and we look at the other commandments as, at best, an optional extra, and, at worst, something that only the crazily religious, or "other people" are bothered about.
Sometimes, I'm ashamed to say, one finds people in the most committed circles of Orthodox Judaism who simply don't care about certain political causes – say the rights of refugees, or climate change. And because, in some circles, these causes are not part of the package of communally accepted issues, you might get looked down upon, or even stigmatized for caring – even though these issues are central to Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. Indeed, this week's reading contains robust protection for asylum seekers.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Jews who care deeply about various political issues but are happy to pick and choose their level of ritual commitment. Have you ever heard somebody say, "Oh, please don't ask the Rabbi if such-and-such is permitted. I really don't want to hear that it isn't!" It's probably a very natural thing to say, especially if the such-and-such in question seems to you to be a minor thing. But, in the month of Elul, when we read this reading, we're supposed to be waking up. Each morning this month, we hear the blast of the shofar to remind us that the day of judgement (Rosh Hashana) is near. And if we only wake up to realise the great privilege it is to serve God, we'd never be able to view any detail of the law as a burden to avoid, or as a concern only for "others".
At first glance, our Midrash seems to be in the same family as a well known parable presented in the New Testament (Matthew 20:1-16):
For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’ They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’ The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’ That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’ He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.
There's a lot that has and could be said about this passage. But it's useful, I think, to focus on the ways it differs from what we see in the Jewish tradition. First of all, the employer in the New Testament pays everybody who makes it to the field equally. That's not true of the God of the Rabbis. And though the traditions can agree that it's up to God how he spends His money, so to speak; the New Testament text makes it sound as if God does at least owe us a daily wage. He can pay others more, if he wants to. These bonuses can be unequal. That's up to God. But, if we did a day's work, we're each entitled to our daily wage. In fact, in the parable, the wage is explicitly stated before the work begins. But, for the Rabbis, we're not told what our wage is going to be, and we're not really entitled to one. We don't serve God in exchange for reward. That's not the point. We serve God because to do so is an honour.
To love another with all of one's heart is to adopt their ends. In other words, it is to make their goal, your goal; it is to will what you recognise to be in their best interest – not for personal gain, but for their gain, because you love them. The point here is that to love God is to want to realise His will for the world, not for one's own benefit, but because doing so flows from that love.
Christian and Jewish thinkers, alike, imagine an afterlife in which the righteous partake in what might be called a beatific vision – gazing upon the Glory of the Divine presence. But a distinctively Jewish attitude suggests that the service of God in this world is a greater honour than the vision granted to the righteous in the world to come.
In fact, pay attention to another Rabbinic source which is even closer to the parable in the book of Matthew:
When Rabi Bon bar Rabi Chiya passed away, Rabi Zeira got up and eulogised him... To what can Rabi Bon bar Rabi Chiya be compared? A king hired many day labourers, and there was one labourer who was very successful at his task, doing more than his task demanded. What did the king do? He took him and went for a walk with him, round and about. As evening fell, the workers gathered to collect their wages, and [the king] gave this particular worker a full day’s wage along with all of the other workers. The workers were aggrieved and they said, ‘we toiled all day, and this one only toiled for two hours, and [you] give him a full days wage with us?’ The king said to them, ‘this one toiled for two hours more than you were able to toil the entire day. So too, Rabbi Bon toiled in the Torah for 28 years [and achieved] that which an ancient scholar couldn’t learn in one hundred years.
In the New Testament, everybody who came to work in the field received the same wage. Even those who came late. Perhaps the fact that they came late was a consequence of the fact that they started their lives in difficult situations. It took them longer to get to the right place. This disadvantage warrants compensation. Perhaps that's why everyone ends up getting the same wage. But for the New Testament, the key to salvation is coming to the field. The key to salvation, for the Christian, is faith in their messiah, who they also take to be God (although many would accept that faith unaccompanied by good deeds is a hollow faith indeed).
Things looks different to the Rabbis. You don't get reward for coming to the field. You get reward for the work that you do. And even though we shouldn't care about the reward, it was clear to the Rabbis, that you'd be rewarded more if you do more, or at the very least, if you tried harder.
Judaism, more than a system of beliefs, is a religion of action. The Jew serves the King of Kings by following the laws of the Torah; not by coming to the field, but by doing the work; not by faith but by deeds. It isn't for us to decide which of those deeds matter the most. Indeed, we shouldn't even care about the reward. We want to harvest every tree in the orchard, not for what we'll receive at the end of the day, but because the greatest conceivable honour for finite beings like us is to serve the King of Kings.