Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael to appoint judges and officers in their cities. A bribe of even an insignificant sum is forbidden. Trees are not to be planted near Hashem's altar, as was the way of idolaters. Blemishes in animals designated for offerings and other points of disqualification are listed. The Great Sanhedrin is to make binding decisions on new situations according to Torah criteria to prevent the fragmentation of the Torah. A very learned scholar who refuses to accept the Halachic decisions of the Sanhedrin incurs the death penalty. A Jewish king may only have possessions and symbols of power commensurate with the honor of his office, but not for self-aggrandizement. He is to write for himself two sifrei Torah, one to be kept with him wherever he goes, so that he doesn't become haughty. Neither the kohanim nor the levi'im are to inherit land in the Land of Israel, rather they are to be supported by the community by a system of tithes. All divination is prohibited. Hashem promises the Jewish People that He will send them prophets to guide them, and Moshe explains how a genuine prophet may be distinguished from a false one. Cities of refuge are to be provided an accidental killer to escape the blood-avenger from the deceased's family. However, someone who kills with malice is to be handed over to the blood-avenger. Moshe cautions Bnei Yisrael not to move boundary markers to increase their property. Two witnesses who conspire to "frame" a third party are to be punished with the very same punishment that they conspired to bring upon the innocent party. A kohen is to be anointed specifically for when Israel goes to war, to instill trust in Hashem. Among those disqualified from going to war is anyone who has built a new house but not lived in it yet, or anyone who is fearful or fainthearted. An enemy must be given the chance to make peace, but if they refuse, all the males are to be killed. Fruit trees are to be preserved and not cut down during the siege. If a corpse is found between cities, the elders of the nearest city must take a heifer, slaughter it, and wash their hands over it, saying that they are not guilty of the death.
Women and Children First
"When you go out to the battle to meet your enemy...the officers shall speak to the people, saying: ‘Who is the man who has built a new house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. Who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go...lest he die in the war and another man redeem it. Who is the man who had betrothed a woman and not taken her to be his wife? Let him go...lest he die in the war and another man take her’.” (20:1-8)
A dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Chance of coming back alive? Not more than 50-50. Who do you send? The single men, of course. If they die it will be a tragedy for their loved ones, but at least there will be no grief-stricken widows and orphans. So says conventional wisdom.
In this week's portion the Torah writes "Who is the man who betrothed a woman and not taken her to be his wife? Let him go...lest he die in the war and another man take her....” This means that an engaged man is exempt from the war, but married men with children are sent out to battle.
Let's look at the other categories of military exemption:
"Who is the man who has built a new house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it." Rashi says that the reason is that he will be distressed that someone else will inaugurate it. Let me ask you a question: Does a person really care if someone else inaugurates a house that he never lived in? Shouldn't we be more concerned about someone who already has a house? Shouldn't we be concerned about the anguish he'll feel when he thinks that someone else will take it over?
Similarly regarding a spouse: Isn't a person more likely to suffer distress at losing the wife that he already knows and loves, rather than losing his fiancée with whom he hasn't yet bonded deeply?
The Torah is concerned here with the spiritual angst that we feel when we have started a mitzvah and we fear that we won't be able to complete it. When our soul sees a spiritual project about to be cut off in its prime, we experience great loss and sadness.
The three scenarios in the above verse each represent a spiritual project in progress. When we build a house, our soul knows that when we finish the building we will be able to do the mitzvah of making a parapet around the roof.
In the time of the Holy Temple, when we planted a vineyard, the soul longed for the fourth year when there would be the opportunity to bring up the produce to Jerusalem, and eat it there in holiness and joy.
When we get engaged to someone, our soul yearns to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful, to multiply and bring children into the world.
The Torah is expressing here the longing of the soul. Not the longing of the body.
- Source: heard from Rabbi Yehuda Samet, based on the Abarbanel