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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, and Abominations.
Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are instructed in preparing for the wars that will inevitably confront them as they conquer and secure the Land of Canaan. Among those preparations was the determination of who would fight on behalf of the Israelite nation, and who would sit it out.
We are taught that, as the Jewish army readied itself for battle, a member of the Priesthood would reduce its ranks by making the following announcements, with the aid of the law enforcement officials:
Is there any man who has built a new home and has not yet dedicated it? Let him go and return home, lest he die in battle, and another man dedicate it.
Is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not yet taken the final steps in order to partake of it? Let him go and return home, lest he die in battle, and another man ready it.
Is there any man who has betrothed a woman but has not yet married her? Let him go and return home, lest he die in battle and another man marry her.
Finally, the law enforcement officials would themselves add the following:
Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return home, so as not to cause the hearts of his brethren to melt as his own.
See Deuteronomy, 20:5-8.
The traditional commentaries are surprisingly reticent in their explanation of the priest’s announcements. Most simply explain that in each of the three scenarios – an undedicated home, a not-yet-ready vineyard, and a betrothed woman – the Torah’s concern is that the soldier will be distracted by what he has left behind, which might endanger both himself and his fellows.
However, this exposition fails to explain why it is only an undedicated home, a not-yet-ready vineyard, and a betrothed woman that would serve as a sufficient distraction. Does that mean that a soldier who goes to war immediately after he is married is less distracted? Arguably, having finally consummated his marriage with his new wife, tearing him from their honeymoon would prove to be a greater distraction than leaving a fiancée with whom he does not yet have that shared experience. Indeed, in the following Torah portion, we will learn that a newlywed husband is exempt from military service for a full year after his marriage, so that he may spend that year making his bride happy. Deuteronomy, 24:5. This, however, has more to do with his obligations to his bride, and not because of the potential distraction to the soldier that would result from leaving her behind.
Moreover, if the priests wanted to make an announcement about the importance of morale, surely they could have followed the format of the announcement made by the law enforcement officials. “Is there any man who is distracted and fearful? Let him go and return home, so as not to endanger himself or his brethren”!
Perhaps most importantly, the commentaries also don’t explain why each announcement concludes with the concern that “another man” may do what this soldier failed to do. If the concern was simply that the distraction of having left things unfinished might endanger his life, the Torah could have stopped after the words “lest he die in battle.” Why add the words “and another man…”? Rather, it is clear from the announcement that it is not concern for the soldier’s life that disqualifies him from service – it is concern for what will happen if he dies. He is instructed to return home to finish what he started, rather than have someone else finish it for him.
Now, without meaning to sound callous – what is so terrible about another man marrying a dead soldier’s betrothed? If tragedy strikes and a soldier dies in battle, would it be preferable that his widowed fiancée not marry another? Why is the threat of this soldier’s death so much more concerning that he is disqualified from fighting?
I believe that these announcements and rules say something very profound regarding these three things: marriage, a vineyard, a house.
There are certain features in our lives that are not merely important; they are vital and essential; they are fundamental elements in our world. For example, the Talmud states that “one who is without a house is not a man.” Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 63a. In other words, a house, a place to call home, does not merely provide shelter – it is something that is intrinsically tied to man’s very identity, to his very essence. With a house, he is a man. Without one, he is not. Completing and dedicating this self-identifying edifice is not simply a corporeal act; it is an act that resounds throughout the cosmos.
Similarly, we are taught that, upon emerging from the Ark after the Great Flood, the very first thing that Noah did was to plant a vineyard. He is roundly criticized by the commentaries for doing so, and it was in his subsequent drunken state that his son Cham earned his everlasting contempt and condemnation. See Genesis, 9:20-27. But this is Noah – the man regarding whom G-d describes as “a righteous and perfect man.” Genesis, 6:9. (And planting a vineyard was actually the second thing that Noah did after leaving the Ark – his first act was to bring a sacrifice to G-d, lending some context to the significance of his first acts.) Clearly, Noah understood that a vineyard offered man a critical perspective, a door to other realities – something so important to man’s existence that he planted a vineyard before he even planted wheat. Indeed, many commentators suggest that the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was none other than a grapevine! Thus, there is a gravity to the planting and completion of a vineyard that transcends mere gardening or drinking; it holds deeply significant meaning for the man fortunate enough to have cultivated it.
Finally, marriage. Everybody remembers their first time. But in the context of consummating a marriage, that first time is particularly meaningful and explosive. The Midrash states that, in His spare time, G-d sits and matches couples. See Bereshit Rabbah, 68:4. The Talmud further states that even for G-d, making matches is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea. See Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 22a. It further states that G-d called man “Ish,” with the middle Hebrew letter Yud, and he called woman “Isha,” with the final Hebrew letter Hay, because together those letters comprise His name, demonstrating His divine presence in the marital union, a union of two halves of a single soul. See Talmud, Sotah 17a. To G-d, the consummation of a marriage is clearly of the greatest importance. He plans it, He rejoices in it, He works on it, and then He joins it. Thus, when a man and a woman become betrothed, they have taken the first momentous step towards not only a physical corporeal coupling, but the reunification of their very soul. When a husband and wife take the final step, and come together for the first time below, a celestial celebration is taking place above, and the entire universe is moved by the joyous intimacy.
For a man to be betrothed to his soul mate, therefore, but be prevented from consummating their bond; for another man to take his place in this cosmic union, is not merely a tragedy: it is a thing that is…wrong. It strikes a dissonant chord in G-d’s symphony; it ruptures the very fabric of His universe. These two were matched to each other, intended for each other, and the heavens rejoiced, the angels dancing, eagerly awaiting the moment at which this couple would “become as one flesh,” harnessing that Divine power that only manifests in the sexual congress of a husband and wife. Could it possibly be that, with all that is at stake, he could die without ever having taken her? That another man could assume his position? Such is the ultimate in coitus interruptus.
Perhaps it is in recognition of this powerful, transcendental union, that Torah instructs the Jewish soldiers: If there is any chance that your union, the completion of your very self, might be interrupted; if there is the possibility that you and the other half of your soul might be torn asunder before you have had the opportunity to consummate your marriage and release the magic of your union throughout the universe; then nothing – not even the conquering of the Promised Land – is more important.