Rabbi David Walk
It's a mystery wrapped in an enigma; it's a wonderment or it's a conundrum. Anyway it's a problem. How does one approach this week's Torah reading? This is the hardest parsha in the entire Torah to try and visualize as a cohesive unit. It just seems like God's shopping list of mitzvoth, seventy-seven in all. Some years I follow the trail blazed by brave rabbis who saw some semblance of order in the chaos, but most years I just chicken out and pick one mitzvah to try and develop into a meaningful life lesson. This is a cowardly season. Ah, but which mitzvah to chose? Shall I go with a famous precept like sending away the mother bird or destroying any trace of Amalek, or shall I go for obscure, like don't take a millstone for collateral or digging latrines (my personal favorite from my IDF days)? I think I'll take a middle road, choosing a relatively well-known commandment, but one rarely discussed in detail.
The overriding theme of the parsha happens to be warfare. Remember, we do call this reading When You Go Out to War (sounds like a song title from WWI). This motif, which began at the end of last week's parsha, is the first and last topic this week. Way before the Geneva Conventions on war from the 20th century, we Jews believed that warfare must have rules and even ethics. The mitzvah that I've chosen appears just beyond half way through this section and is connected to warfare. It goes as follows, When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out in the army, nor shall he be subjected to anything associated with it. He shall remain free for his home for one year and delight his wife, whom he has taken (Deuteronomy 24:5). This seems like a follow up to a verse read last week, And what man is there who has betrothed a woman and has not yet taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man take her (20:7). That verse is a continuation of the right of a new home owner or fresh vintner to enjoy these items before going to war. However, there is a major distinction between those exemptions read last week. Those individuals are freed from hazardous or combat duty, but may remain with the army in support roles. However, the newly wed soldier doesn't go out with the army at all. He is required to entertain his new wife, and, therefore, must stay home.
What's the reasoning behind these rules? It seems that the laws enumerated last week are concerned with the fighting effectiveness of the soldier. With these concerns on his mind, it will be hard to fight with the necessary panache. Plus, last week we also listed the individual whose heart was faint, wisely afraid of the fray. The newly wed is a totally different concern. Our anxiety is about the wife and the marriage rather than the military.
This brings us to my real issue. In Jewish tradition we have a concept of shana rishona or the first year of marriage, and there are a number of laws associated with this idea, all based on this verse that a new husband must delight his new wife. The verse says that he must be made free to remain with his wife. This idea is crucial. The newly minted groom must free up his schedule to make his wife the number one issue in his life. There are many customs about staying together during this year. In the yeshiva world, it is common that men who had always gone to the study hall every evening, refrain from doing so during this first year. There is clearly a concern that husbands may ignore this new member of the household and just continue business as usual without regard to his bride's needs. Remember, historically brides moved from her father's home and family to now reside in her husband's domain. She needs more than a nice welcome; she requires a respected status in the new environment.
One of my spiritual heroes,
Rabbi Twerski concludes with a number of rules like don't let problems fester and focus on what's best for the unit, but far and away the most important tenet of a successful marriage is to respect one another. He quotes from the seventh wedding blessing, happiness, jubilation, cheer, delight, love, fellowship, peace, and friendship are available to the couple. However, these items are not delivered gift wrapped to your threshold. The seeds must be planted and carefully tended, only then can these products be reaped.
It is no coincident that our parsha intermingles many laws of marriage with many laws of warfare. They both require careful planning and management. And only through hard work can a couple be assured that their marriage won't become a battle ground, and instead be a field of integrity and trust, love and peace.
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