Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
This week’s Torah reading begins with war and ends with war. In between, the portion is packed with commandments; in fact, more commandments are found in this section than in any other.
Early in the reading, we notice that there is a cause-and-effect relationship among the first three topics: a beautiful wife, taken in battle, will lead to a situation in which a man has one favored wife and one whom he rejects, which in turn leads to the “rebellious son.”
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them… (Deuteronomy 21:18)
The commentators suggest that the rebellious child is not raised in a vacuum; he is the result of a dysfunctional home. This child’s mother was torn forcibly from her family and homeland. It is a recipe for the collision of two cultures and two value systems. The disunity in the home contributes to the son’s disinterest in spiritual matters. As the son of a father who lacked self-control, preferring immediate gratification, is it any wonder that the child would grow up with similar traits?
The key to understanding is in this verse: the rebellious son refuses to listen to BOTH his father and his mother. Considering how they came together, it’s no surprise that the parents are not on the same page. The clear absence of unity between the parents breeds the rebellious son. That is not to say that he is ‘off the hook’, particularly as an adult with free choice but it is to say that how parents live affects their children far more than what they say.
The theme of relationships – how to build them, how to keep them intact, and how to heal them in the event that they are damaged – is the overriding theme of this week’s Torah reading.
One of the commandments stipulates a very strict limitation on interpersonal relationships.
An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the Congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Almighty, your God, would not listen to Bil’am; but the Almighty, your God, turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Almighty your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. (Deuteronomy 23:4-7)
Amon and Moav were raised in a rather strange family unit. Their mothers were sisters who got their father drunk, and then had intimate relationships with him. Amon and Moav, through no fault of their own, were the result of incest. (Genesis 19:30-38)
Lot, the nephew of the illustrious Avraham, is another example. His status as the heir apparent of Avraham’s wealth should have been enough; his relationship with a caring uncle should have trumped the dissension between the shepherds of his flocks and Avraham’s shepherds. Avraham, a lover of peace, suggested separation. Genesis 13:7-9
Betraying his allegiance to the earthly over the heavenly, Lot chose to go east to Sodom, a place of great wickedness.
There is something terribly wrong with a person who would leave the peaceful and hospitable tent of Avraham to go live in a place like Sodom. No doubt, Lot was motivated by dreams of wealth and power and judged by what ‘looked good’ but in fact was far from good. Sodom was destroyed; he lost his home and his wife; he escaped with only the clothes on his back and his two daughters who were products of the Sodomite educational system.
Certain streams of psychiatry would jump on these accounts and say that the sons “couldn’t help it” or “it’s not their fault,” or “they are victims of the parents’ sins.” Wrong!
The reason the Torah gives for not intermarrying with a descendant of Amon or Moav has nothing to do with their parents and everything to do with their personal choices: “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.” In other words, the seed of Amon and Moav had lost the art of kindness, of humane compassion, of generosity and and good will towards others.
It is their failure to greet the wandering Israelites in the desert with food and drink that demonstrates their disagreeable character.
The lesson for all of us is unavoidable: Human beings – children and adults -are too easily tempted to blame others for their own shortcomings. The Torah sets a higher standard, one consistent with how we were created.
Every human being has Free Will; regardless of what has happened to you, what parents you had, what hurts you’ve experienced, what hardships you’ve endured, YOU – and only YOU – have the responsibility for your decisions. It is ‘we’ not ‘them’ who have the ability and the power to choose whether we will wallow in negativity and in the past; or will we have the wisdom to learn from every life experience, using each one as a stepping stone to greatness. Cycles of abuse and pain can and must be broken. Amon and Moav, as well as Lot, has so many opportunities to learn from their experiences and become great men. It was for choosing to focus on their own feelings of disenfranchisement, their experiences of cruelty and selfishness, their own anger and sense of fatalistic doom, that they were forever barred from the congregation of Israel.
There is no human being without emotional scars and personal failures. Focusing on anger and failure can easily develop into self-fulfilling, negative prophesies, leading down the path to the “rebellious son”, to fractured homes and divided communities. Alternatively, we can each make the conscious choice to learn positive lessons from our negative experiences and to embrace the higher moral ground prepared for us by our ancestors.
In Tune with Torah this week = as we continue to make our way through the Hebrew month of Elul which is dedicated to repentance in order to prepare our hearts for the approaching Festivals of the Lord (Lev. 23), this is the time to take an honest look at our personal acceptance of responsibility. Are we prone to blaming others for our problems? Do we wallow in negativity? Or are we on the path to greatness by choosing to learn the lessons of every experience we have in life?